The Photograph / Penelope Lively
New York: Penguin Viking, c2003.
This is one of the few Lively books I haven't read yet, so decided that this week was the perfect time to pick it up. I found a nice hardcover a few months ago and was waiting for the Lively mood to strike me. It's very much about her common preoccupations: memory, how well we know people, the place of the past in the present.
The story is thus: Glyn, landscape historian, has married Kath, young, beautiful, rather feckless. Her elder sister Elaine, garden designer, is married to Nick, a man stuck in the big ideas/no follow-through adolescent stage of development. Kath has been dead for a number of years when the story opens, when Glyn, on the search for a paper he wants to use in an article, uncovers an envelope in his archive. It has a photograph inside, a photo of Kath and Nick surreptitiously holding hands.
This throws the whole narrative into overdrive. Glyn, furious, does what he does best -- he obsesses over it and tries to track down every last bit of information about what this photo represents. Elaine, on the other hand, wishes that she'd never found out. Things will now have to change.
Nick can't understand the fuss; it was 15 years ago, it didn't mean anything, why is Elaine getting so worked up? It's more his reaction than the original action that spurs Elaine to boot him out. He's been so dependent on her income and her patience that he is utterly incapable of surviving alone, so, he decamps to his daughter's flat in London, from where she is only too glad to press her mother to take him back.
The past rises up to shatter the present, and has everyone questioning how well they really knew Kath -- and really, how well do they know one another? The man who took the original photograph, Nick's previous business partner Oliver, gets dragged into the drama against his will. As first Glyn, then Nick, come to him about it, he muses that Kath "has become like some mythical figure, trawled up at will to fit other people's narratives. Everyone has their way with her, everyone decides what she was, how things were. It seems to him unjust that in the midst of this to-do she is denied a voice"
In Lively's writing, there are always sharp comments on individual peculiarities, but is the person self-aware about their quirks? This is never as certain. The story, though resplendent with sound and fury, dies off into a quieter acceptance near the end. The characters seem to accept that the objective Truth will never be known, that Kath's character is a jumble of impressions made up of many different viewpoints.
The fact that there are so many incompatible couples in this narrative -- Glyn & Kath, Elaine & Nick, even their daughter and her various suitors -- gives it a melancholy realism. It's not a very happy book, tinged with betrayal, obsession, fear, and resignation. And yet Lively can write in such a fluid style, sweeping in and out of interior monologue to a wide view of history and landscape to the most minute social interaction. She can express exultant happiness and bitter anger on the same page. The writing is really wonderful, very recognizable as her particular style, and her regular themes arise, and I am greatly fond of both.
An excerpt to close -- Glyn is on a hillside in Dorset, working, in a place that he had taken Kath early in their relationship. He sees a kestrel fly over, and suddenly he is with Kath once more.
Glyn is now diverted from his reflections on the functions of time; he notes that his flow of observation -- unconsidered, uncontrived -- is a nice instance of the tumultuous, spontaneous operation of the mind. He knows enough of the theories of long-term memory to identify his recognition of the mill and the hill fort as the practice of semantic memory -- the retention of facts, language, knowledge, without reference to the context of their acquisition. He simply knows these things, along with everything else he knows that makes him a fully operational being -- a being considerably more operational than most, in his view. Whereas the vision of Kath sparked by the kestrel is due to episodic memory, which is autobiographical and essential to people's knowledge of their own identity. Without it we are untethered, we are souls in purgatory. Those glimmering episodes connect us with ourselves; they confirm our passage through life . They tell us who we are.
It is exactly this idea, that accepted moments in one's autobiographical memory can be disrupted, shifting one's understanding of reality, that this book strives to represent. I think Lively succeeds -- despite the irritating behaviour of these characters, the shifting sands beneath their once secure past are clearly drawn. The effects will go on and on into the future, beyond the 'end' of this story.
Another masterful tale, though because of the prickly relationships and melancholy outlook, it didn't find the warm and cozy spot in my heart that some of her other titles have. Still a worthwhile read, however!