Book Reviews - Fiction
By Alidė Kohlhaas
When it comes to the books by Penelope Lively I generally feel ambivalent. Her fame, her Booker Prize, and prodigious output make her someone to reckon with, but not necessarily an author to be admired. That has all changed with her latest novel, Family Album. Here she digs deep into the psyche of the varied nature of a family with many children, none of whom are alike, something that strikes me as very normal.
The Harper family is, however, not what one can politely describe as a normal family. Somewhat cynically, one feels inclined to ask, 'what is normal?' after all. Still, we have expectations of normalcy, which does not fit the Harpers. Hence, it fails to surprise that here lurks a murky secret beneath the surface, one that as the novel unfolds, occasionally seems to rise just a teensy bit to the top, but allows the reader to easily dismiss it. This general state of ignoring or denial can eventually no longer be justified by either the book's characters or the reader.
Family Album is a family tale well told by Lively, even if it is with considerable reserve. The story moves the reader forward while it steps back. It offers up a new take on the family saga without sinking into gothic horror. The novelist provides a collective past for her characters, most of whom the reader may not really like much. They appear distant, sometimes vague, yet strangely compelling just as some members of someone else's family may appear.
There are six siblings in the Harper family, some of whom rarely ever visit their parents at the family home, Allersmead. This sprawling Edwardian house speaks of the parents' eccentricity, and the genteel neglect they impose upon it. The story moves from the present to the past and back again as seen mostly through the eyes of Gina, a television journalist, whose job takes her to many places, but especially to Africa. There she reports on famine and the plight of the children caught in the conflicts of this continent of pain.
Interest in the family is sparked by Gina's new companion, who is intrigued by her silence about her past. When Philip gets to meet her parents, Alison and Charles, and also the 'au pair' Ingrid, who has been with the family for decades, questions are asked and only slowly answered. Also present during Gina and Philip's first visit together from London to Allersmead is Paul, the eldest of the Harpers's six offspring. He is a lost soul who drifts from job to job, and always returns home when things get toughest.
The youngest is Clare, a dancer with a home in Paris, but who roams the globe with her dance company. In-between, in no particular order are the remaining three: book editor Katie, about to move with her husband to San Francisco from Boston, ex-fashion writer-turned-property developer Sandra with a home in Rome, and lastly Roger, a pediatrician who works in Toronto.
The fecund Alison, who is happiest these days when cooking, seems stuck in the 1970s and redolent in Laura Ashley. According to Gina, father Charles "writeswrotebooks. Polymathhe'd probably buy that description. History, philosophy, sociologya bit of everything." There is a sourness to the parents' marriage. Throughout the children's growing up these two adults barely pay attention to each other. Alison talks constantly and Charles undermines her with sarcasm. A grievous exchange on their 25th wedding anniversary tells a great deal. "Why did we get married?" Alison asks Charles. "I seem to recall you were pregnant," he replies. There is obvious resentment on the part of Charles of Alison's fecundity, one he contributed to; it is reminiscent of Charles Dickens, who despised his wife, Catharine, for presenting him with too many children.
Ingrid is part of the furniture, so to speak. Her immediate fame appears to be for her ability to grow vegetables in Allersmead's large garden. Only once in the past did her unexplained absence for an undefined period of some months make everyone in the family aware of something missing. "There is damage to the status quo; Allersmead is not as it should be."
Philip digs deeper into Gina's memory of the past.
Eventually all of the characters take turns to reveal themselves to the reader, directly or indirectly. Thus the tale of Allersmead begins to take shape, puts the hidden into focus. They are thus living through a form of an abreaction that comes to an end, including an end of denial, with the sudden death of Charles.
Although the six siblings are decidedly distant from each other in mind and location, they are not obviously malicious toward each other. They are, as it so often happens in large families, separated into groups in which some like each other more than the others. Yet, in the end, they all come together to resolve the story of Allersmead, to allow all of their lives to move forward in a new direction.
No Man's Land & Deadgame has been moved to Archives
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