Tuesday, November 16, 2021

the last book I read

Family Album by Penelope Lively.

Everyone assumes their own family is completely normal and typical and that everyone else's family is pretty much the same, minor variations aside like some of the people having different names. I'd certainly assumed that our loose routine of Tofu Night every alternate Thursday, regular grooming of the family wolverine and occasional nude Wiccan ritual incantations under the full moon was just what everyone did and was slightly disoriented to find other families doing other stuff that they in turn assumed was completely commonplace.

The Harpers are no different in this regard, though they do have some idiosyncrasies of their own - six kids is an unusually large number, for starters, and they live in a sprawling ramshackle old Victorian house, Allersmead, the general upkeep of which is forever slightly beyond their means. Charles is an author of non-fiction books which sell in modest but decent numbers and Alison is an enthusiastic stay-at-home Mum and housewife, from a time when that was the default arrangement anyway and so didn't need any explanation. She is very content just to fire out kids on a regular-ish schedule and cook fabulous meals for everyone, with a bit of help from Ingrid, the live-in au pair.

So there is Paul, the eldest, a bit wayward, some drug-related run-ins with the law in his youth, never really settled into a job or a long-term relationship, and latterly living back at Allersmead. The rest of the children have scattered around the world while over-achieving conspicuously: there's Gina, a TV war reporter, Sandra, something big in fashion in Italy, Katie, who lives in America (if her professional status is ever mentioned I can't remember it), Roger, a doctor in Canada, and Clare, a dancer with a French dance company. So return visits to Allersmead are infrequent. Gina seems to visit the most as she is at least theoretically based in the UK, and, as it happens, has a new boyfriend, Philip, to introduce to her parents.

Their visit is the jumping-off point for some excursions back into the past: the kids' games involving trips down into the cobwebby cellar and just a bit more cruelty and weirdness than the adults ever got to know about, Charles' aloofness and inclination to retreat into his study with his books rather than get involved in the messy business of family conflict, Alison's inability to conceal from the other children that Paul was her favourite and that she was prepared to forgive him just about anything, a family holiday to Cornwall wherein various momentous things happened including Sandra losing her virginity and Paul getting arrested for drug possession, and the gradual shimmering into focus of the Big Family Secret: Clare is actually Charles and Ingrid's daughter, not Charles and Alison's. This was concealed from the other children at the time by sending Ingrid "away" for a bit and having her return with a baby supposedly just acquired from some acquaintances who didn't want it. Evidently each of the three adults has come to terms with this in their own way but it provides an explanation for Ingrid's never having left Allersmead, despite all the children having moved out long since (well, Paul excepted). Some family tension is provided by all the children having worked the situation out for themselves over the years, but never having broached the subject with the various parents; so everyone knows, and everyone (except maybe Alison) knows that everyone knows, but no-one can ever say anything.

That synopsis, and the novel's "will this do?" title, scream "formulaic" and I suppose in some ways it is: mildly eccentric middle-class family, scattered to the four winds by career progression, return one by one to the family home to confront some stuff from the past and - hey - discover something new about themselves. The novel's climax comes when Charles has a massive heart attack at his desk and dies, and the children have to co-operate to make funeral arrangements, Alison being completely incapable. Most of this section is written as a compressed series of e-mail conversation fragments rather than the more usual tearful family reunion, which clearly is how this sort of thing would play out in real life but seems not entirely satisfactory nonetheless. With Charles gone Alison has to face up to the reality of it being impractical for her and Ingrid to rattle round Allersmead in their old age, and confront the necessity of selling it and moving on.

So we're not breaking any new ground here in terms of form or subject matter, but that's OK, not every novel has to do that. I own eleven Penelope Lively books and they're all of an admirably consistent quality: According To Mark and Moon Tiger are probably the best ones but there really aren't any duds: Spiderweb is the other one to feature on this blog. I found Family Album to be oddly reminiscent of a Barbara Vine novel in places: lots of flashback narrative gradually revealing some incident in the past that's been carefully concealed. The Chimney Sweeper's Boy, for instance, has something similar and also features a forbidding and aloof patriarch who may have taken some secrets to the grave with him. Family Album is delivered from a variety of viewpoints by a variety of voices; most family members get a turn and they are all unreliable narrators to some extent. 

Family Album was on the shortlist for the Costa Award in 2009: that year's list is well-represented on this blog as Wolf Hall was also on the shortlist and Brooklyn won the award. 

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