Family Album (2009): Penelope Lively

★★★½

Allersmead. It’s a grand name for a house, but this suburban pile is the kind of house that deserves a name. Comfortable and sprawling, it has watched over the growing pains and squabbles of the family: six children; their mismatched parents; and Ingrid, the capable au pair who has never left and has been absorbed into the tribe. Redolent with cooking or baking, the house rambles around its kitchen, the heart of so many memories. But time passes. Children grow and move away. When one of them, Gina, brings her boyfriend Philip back to meet her parents, he begins to ask questions about her past. An only child, he’s fascinated by the dynamics between six siblings and curious about Gina’s parents. As Gina begins to tell her tale, dipping in and out of her family’s past, Lively reveals the tangled tale of a household built around secrets and lies, in which things are half-known but never admitted, for fear of spoiling the image of contentment.

The children grow up in the midst of cheerful chaos, living the kind of haphazard life that Enid Blyton might have written about. With six children – Paul, Sandra, Gina, Roger, Clare and Katie – there are enough age gaps for different groups and alliances to emerge, as well as the tight-knit games that embrace everyone. They have to make their own fun, as the adults are so blissfully detached from everything. Mumsy Alison is preoccupied with the sheer contentment of mothering such a brood, always cooking or planning food in the vast kitchen. Ingrid is usually with her, or out in the garden. And Charles, the father, retreats to his study, where he writes the books that have kept the family in its accustomed style, and hides behind the paper. Charles, indeed, seems faintly irritated by having ended up with so many children, which makes it virtually impossible to read or think in peace, and he has therefore reacted by simply withdrawing behind a closed door while everyone else keeps the house going.

This is part of the problem, of course, as the children realise. Their father’s lack of interest in them has left them all, in different ways, trying to get a reaction from him, by any means. Like Gina and Roger, some of them study and develop impressive careers. Like Clare, others take unusual paths. Others still, like Paul, rebel and sink into a life of bored debauchery, savouring his ability to cause anger rather than indifference. Through the vignettes of the past, we come to understand how the children’s various efforts to engage, to force a kind of family feeling in Charles, has shaped them into the six very different people they’ve become. We peek into long-standing family resentments and the events that, to outsiders, may seem insignificant but become enshrined in family lore. And we see the children learning to negotiate a path between their father’s neglect and their mother’s rosy-tinted view of how a rambunctious, happy family ought to be. But is their family happy? Is the cosy, untidy world at Allersmead as benign as it always seemed to be? And what is the story behind Ingrid, who has been as steady a presence in the children’s lives as either of their parents?

I’m not overly familiar with Penelope Lively’s works, and this felt very introverted – a fascinating but rather low-key exploration of family dynamics. I was engaged but, because I’m an only child, like Gina’s Philip, it felt like watching a nature documentary about a strange and exotic species: The Large Family. Those with siblings will probably be better able to appreciate the interplay between the children, recognising themes that animated their own childhoods. It is a deft book, with good characterisation, and its very slow pace is perfectly engaging, but I can’t say there were any moments which utterly captivated me. It is a solid, well-written, fly-on-the-wall look at a well-off family living in a nice house who fumble their way through the task of being related to one another – and sometimes that’s the kind of quiet, well-crafted book that works absolutely fine. Perhaps it’s best to say that this kind of book is enjoyable, but rather hard to write about at length, because much of the pleasure in reading it comes from experiencing its gradual unfolding of life’s little betrayals and accommodations.

I have other books by Lively on my bookshelf, including Moon Tiger, which is the one that everyone seems to talk about, so I shall have to think again about Family Album further down the line, once I have more of a sense of her ‘style’ and how it fits in with her other books. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has read more of her work. Is this typical? Are these focused, introverted family stories her metier? (Nothing wrong with that: after all, there’s a lot of scope to explore how unhappy families differ, each unhappy in their own way.) And Lively’s shabby, exuberant, complicated family had echoes for me of works by other writers I’ve (mostly) enjoyed: something of Mary Wesley here, perhaps – though in a gentler key – and a faint hint of A.S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet.

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