Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is the most precise writer since Henry James. Where he carries the reader to the heart of his observation in a closing spiral of phrases set off by commas, Lively offers carefully-spun details, the particulars of work and relationships. And where James offers a Pointillist view of his subject, those dots of deliberately expressed color coalescing at a distance into an image, Lively weaves in tapestry fashion - these threads, these shadings - from which patterns emerge, become vivid; yet, a few more passes of the shuttle subtly change what we see. And when she is finished, Ah. We know she's done, every thread has been incorporated, nothing remains to say, the picture is complete.

Lively's novel The Photograph begins straightforwardly enough: Glyn, a landscape historian rummaging through old papers in his closet, discovers an envelope he's never seen. The photo inside is of a group of people: his wife Kath, her sister, her sister's husband, a woman friend and her man friend. And his wife and her brother-in-law are holding hands in an intimate clasp, unseen except by the camera. Kath has been dead some years - how can this revelation make a difference now? And yet, as Glyn confronts those in the photo with its evidence, one person after another finds life shaken from its moorings. This sylph with her vital glow revisits them all, undoing their certainties, reasserting the mystery that surrounded her.

Lively uses her found-object catalyst to examine people's relations to work, to family, to friendship, to the entire range of emotions from dissatisfaction and jealousy to the full storm of love.

This slight novel, 231 pages, pulls no punches, employs no gimmicks, promises nothing it does not deliver. We are in the hands of a master. There is no bombast, only the struggles and escapes familiar to us all, directed and pointed to illuminate a life. If you appreciate clear simple language which lays bare the hidden heart in all its complexity, you should read this fine book.

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