‘Read some Penelope Lively!’ my friend insisted time and time again. I must admit I did resist. I’d recently decided I couldn’t stand Ian McEwan anymore and I was worried that another decidedly white middle class read might send me over the edge. But when I found a copy of Family Album (Moon Tiger is my friend’s recommendation) in a charity shop in Wells it was clearly a message from the great bookseller in the cosmos.
Family Album (2009) charts the story of a Victorian (or Edwardian – it seems to vary) house; it’s a gargantuan structure with a myriad of floors and rooms (it actually has parlours!) and is called Allersmead (surely a better title?). And in this house live the Harper family: mum Alison, dad Charles, kids Paul, Gina, Sandra, Katie, Roger and Clare, plus the au pair Ingrid. Alison’s a real ‘70s homemaker – all shapeless smocks and hair buns, cooking like there’s no tomorrow, insistent on the importance of a happy family life. The book starts with one of the older girls (Gina) and her trip back home with the new boyfriend who’s enchanted by this retro childhood home and Alison’s ideals. But it soon becomes clear that Alison’s view of their Waltons-like existence doesn’t quite marry up with everyone else’s.
Coming from a single child family myself, some parts of their life did read a bit like a horror story to me. The named mugs, the hordes of children on a treasure hunt, the enforced family picnics, the lack of privacy. I started empathising with poor dad Charles, hiding in his study and keeping out of everyone’s way. And then there’s the strange live-in au pair Ingrid who came over from Scandinavia in the sepia toned ‘70s, never to return. Instead way past the time the kids have left (well most of them – the one failure, Paul, keeps on coming back) she’s still there, saying things like ‘I am thinking you would like a nice cup of tea now’. Of course, there’s a mystery here. We know this from the blurb on the back (‘and one particular devastating secret of which no one speaks…”) however you’ll guess it by page 30. But here’s what Lively does so well – she reveals it early on too! Phew. I thought I was going to have to read the whole thing and act surprised at the end. So this got me thinking – maybe it’s another secret – and there is one surrounding Charles…
Some parts of this read are a little clichéd. I mean, the statuesque Scandinavian au pair with the long blonde hair, the protective earth mother and the distant father all seem familiar. And despite the back cover’s tempting whiff of a hidden scandal there is no shocking revelation. But what’s really compelling here is Lively’s style; she effortlessly segues between past and present, action and memory, and between characters. One minute we’re listening to an omniscient narrator charting the history of the house before 1914, the next we’re in Alison, or Paul, or Gina’s psyche – sometimes in first, sometimes in third person. But it never jars. Instead we’re given a fluid exploration of family, memory and perception that’s always immensely readable.