Family Album by Penelope Lively
The final page of Penelope Lively’s Family Album describes the rambling Allersmead: ‘A prestigious Victorian family home, set in ¼ acre of garden with mature trees . . . Panelled study with De Morgan tiles to fireplace . . . Seven bedrooms and two bathrooms on the first floor . . . an impressive house of the pre-First World War period, with original stained glass and other period features.”
Allersmead is the dominant character in Lively’s delicate exploration of the fractious Harper family with its four daughters, two sons, parents Charles and Alison, and Ingrid, a Scandinavian au pair who never succeeds in leaving, even after all but one of the children, troubled Paul, have scattered to the four corners.
Perhaps the most telling of the early details the reader learns, as Lively methodically unpicks the family’s history, is that not one of the six adult offspring of Charles and Alison has produced a grandchild. Most are in stable relationships, but at least two, including the peripatetic foreign correspondent Gina, embodies the archetype of the commitment-phobic serial monogamist.
Just as she has declined to replicate her mother’s fecundity, so she has avoided marriage, and in the opening chapter’s visit to Allersmead by Gina and her current boyfriend Philip, we start to see why: Alison, the relentless feeder, is buttressed by Ingrid, who silently moves to fill empty coffee cups waved in her direction, and the eccentric, possibly misanthropic Charles.
But all will be revealed, as the opening of one chapter seems to promise: “The house hears everything. It knows all that has been said, all that has been done. Silent speech hangs in the air, and repeats the words that hang in people’s heads: ‘I am a servant’, ‘I seem to recall that you were pregnant’, ‘Who did you love best?’”
It is a novel of secrets, but whether those secrets are found to be pedestrian, “particularly devastating” (as the dust-jacket blurb pledges), or something else altogether will likely depend on the reader’s own experience. Lively may have drawn inspiration from Tolstoy’s famous line – “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – but she doesn’t presume to decide for us which kind of family the Harpers are.
Perhaps most remarkably, she finds the universal in a particularly English family. After all, could there be anyone who doesn’t recognize the father more interested in his work than his children; or the mother with ‘that inexhaustible smile’ and ‘majestic complacency’; or the pre-marital pregnancy that goes unmentioned; or the mysterious absence of a family member, the return of whom coincides with the arrival of an infant?
It is a great achievement on the part of Lively, a Man Booker Prize winner, to bundle up decades of conversation and recollection (each character’s point of view and experience, both now and then, is aired) in an affecting tale that neither demonizes nor canonizes its participants. Allersmead holds its secrets, but it does not bear witness to lies.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones