Sunday, February 21, 2010

Penelope Lively's Family Album

Sigh! Here I am again, playing catch-up.
Penelope Lively's Family Album. Incisive sketch of a family from numerous perspectives. A technique that's been often used, of course, but Lively is a master and it's marvellous to watch the shifts she makes from one voice to another. The large family, of a certain class, time, and place, is introduced by an adult daughter who maintains a brisk and careful distance, letting us know that despite mom's apparent warmth and wonderful cookery and dad's scholarly eccentricity, despite the charms of a large, slightly chaotic, heritage house, skeletons will be found before the story's done. Layers are peeled away, character by character, with disorienting-yet-convincing shifts in time, and we find that the secret revealed is one that has always been "hidden in plain sight," just as we recognize the edge of horror hiding in the innocence of childhood games. Many of the same elements here, for those interested in large-family narratives, as in Anne Enright's The Gathering, but a very different tone than that earlier work -- crisp, amused, almost brittle in its satire rather than blisteringly angry in its honesty and revelation -- the secrets are nowhere near as dark; the redemption is more easily come by. Still, for me as the oldest of a very large family, both are fascinating in their attempts to capture the special pressures and solidarities of such childhoods. Particularly now, as my mother's memory fails and her siblings die (her brother and her sister died within the last two months), remembering family life looms large for me, and both these novels point out the challenges and the perils of retrieving the past.
Next post will be about a novel where the stakes are so much higher for memory-work. 'til then . . .

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