Penelope Lively, “The Photograph”

What a great premise for a novel: a character comes across an old photograph of his wife. She is surreptitiously holding hands with another man — her brother-in-law, actually. Our protagonist realizes, for the first time, that the two were having an affair. Now what?

A few years ago I heard Tom Stoppard, in a radio interview, say that doling out information in the right order and at the right pace is a major element of drama. Well, he would know — and so does Penelope Lively. I often think that sheer curiosity is what keeps most of us flicking over the pages of most books. Lively has structured The Photograph so that each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character. Glyn, the husband who finds the photo of his wife Kath, is a driven academic. Kath is obviously no longer in his life. Why not? Elaine, Kath’s equally driven sister, feels slightly guilty about Kath. Why? Nick, Elaine’s husband, the one who had the affair with Kath, remembers his sudden, feverish need to possess Kath who, we learn, was beautiful. Was. Hmmm.

Photo Dr. Tom Moore, Durham University

But Penelope Lively is too good a writer to occupy herself merely with a tale of a marriage that wasn’t all it seemed to be. She is also concerned with time. Glyn is a landscape historian: his subject is the way time operates on the land over thousands of years. Elaine, a landscape architect, works in the same field but on a shorter framework: again and again, Lively has Elaine assess a garden in terms of how it will look a few years hence. The other characters are preoccupied with time, too. They think about how they use it, where it goes, how you track it. Nick, Elaine’s husband, a feckless perpetual boy, is unconcerned at the passage of time until he suddenly perceives himself looking older. These characters have known each other for years, and as Glyn tries to find out more about Kath’s infidelity, chronology matters, too. When was this trip, what year did we go to the Roman villa?

Memory, of course, is time’s lodging in our minds. It’s were we keep our perceptions and our private narratives. But Lively shows us how erratic memory is. As Elaine examines the telltale photograph, she thinks, “It is as though both Kath and Nick have undergone some hideous metamorphosis. A stone has been cast into the reliable, immutable pond of the past, and as the ripples subside, everything appears different. The reflections are quite other; everything has swung and shattered, it is all beyond recovery. What was, is now something else.”

Eventually we put together a portrait of Kath, the girl in the photograph. Glyn’s view of her changes. Elaine’s, too. Perception and reality are measured against each other. Self-absorption is somewhat shaken. A new equilibrium emerges. Life goes on, as “something else.”

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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10 Responses to Penelope Lively, “The Photograph”

  1. Judy Fireman says:

    Erratic memory indeed. I was moved by your review of THE PHOTOGRAPH to order it immediately. Upon clicking over to Amazon, I discovered that I had purchased the book in 2007. Yikes. I have NO memory of buying it, much less reading it.

    I suppose Penelope Lively would suggest that one of the blessings of time, perhaps, it that it allows us to do the same things all over again. At least that’s the most positive spin I can put on this memory lapse.

    Thanks for reminding [sic] me of this interesting book.

    • carolwallace says:

      Judy, one of the reasons I blog is to etch books into my memory a little bit more securely. That being said, I occasionally look at the archive with complete surprise. So I guess it’s not working.

  2. I loved that book. When we last moved house I couldn’t part with it and still pick it up now and again. You summed it up brilliantly!

  3. carolwallace says:

    Well, as a novelist, Kitty, of course you would like it! She’s in tip-top form!

  4. Annie says:

    I first ‘met’ Lively as a children’s author when I was teaching primary children and running the school library. She was magnificent in that genre, with a wonderful sense of humour and timing, which really appealed to the children. I often read her books out loud to my class because she wrote so well, she read well too. Following her through into her adult manifestation has been one of the greet pleasures of my personal reading and I’m so glad you enjoyed this. Have you read ‘Consequences’ or ‘Family Album’? If not, I’m sure you would love both.

  5. carolwallace says:

    Annie, I read “Consequences” a couple of years ago — though I had to check my blog archives to figure that out. “Family Album,” I think not, but I’ll look for it. Apparently I liked “The Photograph” better than “Consequences” though that may be a question of expectations. She is really a splendid writer, in any case.

  6. Nathalie Foy says:

    This sounds fantastic. I’ve been wanting to read Lively for a while, and your review has moved me to push it up the list. Thanks!
    @Annie, which of her children’s books did you most like?

    • Annie says:

      Nathalie, like her adult fiction they are very different. I had a wonderful term with one particular class exploring the ideas behind ‘The Voyage of QV66′ and I also love ‘The House in Norham Gardens’ and ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe’.

  7. Pingback: Follow my book blog, “Book Group of One” | | Carol Wallace BooksCarol Wallace Books

  8. Pingback: Penelope Lively, “How It All Began” « Book Group of One

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