Today’s nomination for Best First Sentence of a Novel: “The coffin stuck fast at the angle of the garden path and the gateway out into the road.” Thank you, Penelope Lively, for giving us an episode and a metaphor elegantly condensed into a few lines. The paragraph continues: “The undertaker’s men shunted to and fro, their hats knocked askew by low branches, their topcoats showered with raindrops from the hedge. The mourners halted around the front door and waited in silence. Birds sang effusively.”
If you read Passing On, you’re going to want to watch those birds, which persistently sing and fly and groom their feathers. You might at first mistake this for the story of a couple of diffident, repressed middle-aged Britons who have trouble adjusting to their monstrous mother’s death. But read the title again: doesn’t it suggest we might think about our own mortality as well? Not only that — as humans die, the cycle of life continues ruthlessly. Seasons pass, we mate and die.
To go back to that metaphor and to the literal part of the story, it’s Dorothy Glover’s coffin that causes so much trouble, even though the redoubtable lady herself is theoretically dead and gone. But her children Helen and Edward have a great deal of difficulty with the “gone” part of the phrase. Dorothy was a dreadful bully and her presence, or her imprint on her children’s psyches, endures long after that funeral. Helen, attempting to bring gradual order to a house where — to give just one example of squalor — dish-towels are habitually gray rags known as “dead rabbits,” keeps tripping over ancient evidence of her mother’s meddling in her long-ago romantic life. Edward, meanwhile, comes completely undone. He has always found refuge in the natural world and his self-soothing amid the creatures occupying the family property takes on a frantic quality. Dragged through Harrod’s on an unfortunate visit to London, Edward takes on “the manic look of some animal transferred into the wrong environment, as though he might run amok, or bite.” Meanwhile the third child, Louise, who was always able to stand up to Dorothy, is having trouble with her teenage children, and rants about the perils of, well, fecundity. “Breed,” she says, “and be damned. Well, no, not damned but deprived of free will. Watch yourself join the animals.” I suppose Louise is something less than a complete character, with these slightly implausible speeches of hers, but Edward and Helen are so sensitively drawn that I didn’t mind.
It’s Lively’s ability to point at the big picture while telling the small story that I admire most in Passing On, and indeed in much of her work. Cause and effect, the passage of time, the behavior of memory lurk beneath the teacups and library books and visits to the pub. As they do in all of our lives, really.