Penelope Lively's new novel takes us deep into familiar Lively country: the outwardly calm English middle (or thereabouts) classes where appearances are, of course, deceptive. Sinister rumbles reverberate beneath the home-grown vegetables, jolly birthdays, named mugs and children's games from the very first chapter.
Charles, a chilly, distant writer, and Alison, a manic housewife and "earth mother" in permanent overdrive, raise their six children – Paul, Gina, Sandra, Roger, Katie and Clare – at Allersmead, a large Edwardian house with a persona and values of its own, rather in the manner of Wuthering Heights, Howards End or Willow Court in Adèle Geras's 2003 novel, Facing the Light. Allersmead, "which has experienced around 43,000 days since first it rose from the mud of a late Victorian building site" packs a "smothering embrace".
The last member of the family is the inscrutable Ingrid, who arrived years earlier from somewhere in Scandinavia as an au pair and stays for the rest of her life as second mother, gardener, general factotum and latterly, when Alison starts running cookery classes, as Alison's PA. "Like most people," Lively tells us, "they know one another inside out, and not at all." Tolstoy's dictum that all happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion springs to mind.
Most of the story is set in the 1980s and told through flashbacks, as the adult children, one by one, visit or make contact with each other or with a "home" from which most have moved a long way. Gina is a globe- trotting TV documentary-maker. Sandra is a fashion and home-décor designer living in Italy. Roger is a doctor in Canada. Clare is a professional dancer in a Paris-based company. Katie lives in the US.
Only Paul, his mother's overt favourite, the drifter with a criminal record and a history of drugs and rehab, is back at Allersmead. Such a diaspora is evidently something to do with the shared childhood, the cellar games and the unspoken open secret which lies at the heart of this family. It is significant, too, that none of the six has children yet, and in some cases there's a determination not to.
Gina brings her new partner, Philip, to Allersmead and tries to explain to him what her childhood was really like with a mother who, with hindsight, was so deeply unhappy that she rarely spoke naturally. Almost every time Alison speaks, Lively uses the word "cries" to denote her excited, habitually feigned enthusiasm. Clare, meanwhile, talks to an incredulous gay dancer colleague about why she is different from her siblings. Katie and Roger, always close, chat to each other about the past as Lively gradually unravels what really happened using a rather bitty narrative technique which could be called "mixed methods" and usually works, but creaks in places. Multiple viewpoints are presented sometimes in the first person and sometimes the third, and without any obvious links or explanations, although there are some deft cliff-hangers. The blend of past and present tense is a bit odd, too.
Once an event changes things for ever at the end of the novel, Lively speeds up the action by hopping into epistolary mode as everyone frantically emails everyone else, and the novel ends, rather neatly, with an estate agent's description of Allersmead so that at last you can visualise it accurately and dispassionately rather than through the mists of memory.
Family Album is a very readable, well-paced novel peopled with Lively's customary immaculately observed and impeccably rounded characters. But as for the family's "dark secret", I'm afraid the reader sees it coming a mile off.