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.
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.”