Family Album, By Penelope Lively

When the foundations crumble in an ideal home
Click to follow

Blame it on the property crash, but novels about large, crumbling houses have been part of the literary zeitgeist this year. From Sarah Waters to James Runcie, these dilapidated homes and the large dysfunctional families who inhabit them have been re-enacting Lampedusa's The Leopard, with bells on. Penelope Lively's Family Album, her 16th in a distinguished, Booker-winning career, is another and, like other house-novels of 2009, a pleasure to read.

Allersmead belongs to Charles and Allison, who live in its Edwardian red-brick expansiveness with their six children and Ingrid the au pair who never leaves. It's the kind of situation familiar to many middle-class readers born in the 1960s – fecundity, smugness, frustration and increasingly straitened means. Its presiding deity is Alison, one of those earth-mother types in a smock who are both maddening and admirable in the certainty that "real old-fashioned family life – you can't beat it."

A wonderful cook who never reads her retiring husband's popular academic books (ironically, one is about childhood), she produces baby after baby with ease, despite, as we discover, not enjoying sex. Allersmead is her idea of heaven. Yet as we get to know the children as adults, and the novel shuttles backwards and forwards in time, it becomes evident that the idyll is not what it appears.

All the children, including druggy, listless Paul (the favourite), have been damaged. Gina, through whose eyes we look most frequently, has become a successful TV reporter, unwilling to settle down like her property-developer, fashion-obsessed sister Sandra.

Clare has become a ballet dancer. Roger is a doctor in Toronto, married to a Chinese Canadian; it's significant, perhaps, that by the end of the novel he is the only one embarking on parenthood. Each has their own collection of fragmentary memories, some of which Ingrid, the inscrutable au pair, can correct as a silent but important observer.

Lively's perennial themes are memory, family, art and loss; the book Charles has on his desk at death is Nabokov's Speak, Memory. The narrow social range of her work can be maddening in novels such as The Photograph but Family Album is hugely enjoyable. Though this novel suffers from a certain lack of momentum and never develops a promising thread about the children's "cellar game", it is consistently absorbing thanks to its acute perception of character.

Who has not met a man like Paul, drifting from one low-level job to the next because of drink, drugs, inertia or (as his mother believes) "such a lot of bad luck"? Alison's voice is perfectly caught, with its chirpy repetitions of "goodness no", its insistence that Allersmead is "perfect... a lovely, lovely family home" and her passive-aggressive capture of the ever-silent Charles. Her husband's deafness to domestic noise, his irritability and silent despair are equally recognisable, and sadder than that of another beleaguered paterfamilias, Mr. Bennet.

"Why did we get married?" Alison asks him at one point, getting the sour reply, "I seem to recall you were pregnant." The parents' total lack of communication or sympathy with each other is typical of so many English marriages that Lively's novel will no doubt be as painful for some to read as it is hilarious for others. Even so, it is one made up of good intentions, and a surprising degree of resilience, self-sacrifice and accommodation. If their children never turn on them with the savage criticism that most teenagers levy on parents, they do gain a clearer view of their relationship than the parents would wish, and will maybe avoid making the same mistakes.

Ultimately, Allersmead itself is the most interesting character of all, quietly witnessing the births, deaths, quarrels and providing "the shell, the framework, the abiding presence that remains when all the evanescent human stuff has passed through and away."

Will it survive as a grand family house, refurbished and renewed? Will it be turned into a nursing home, or razed for some hideous new-build? As with the other novels about crumbling old houses, we wait to find out.

Amanda Craig's 'Hearts and Minds' is published by Little, Brown