Family Album by Penelope Lively

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Family Album by Penelope Lively

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Paul Curd
Reviewed by Paul Curd
Summary: The story of an upper-middle class family, told from different perspectives and with different views of the 'truth'. The dark secret at the centre of the novel is not quite as shocking as one is led to believe, and the end result is slightly disappointing.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: August 2009
Publisher: Fig Tree
ISBN: 978-1905490455

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Family Albumis the sixteenth novel Penelope Lively has written for adults. As the title suggests, it is a series of snapshots, episodes from the life of an upper middle class family. Charles, the father, is a writer who, it seems, never wanted marriage and children and who spends the majority of his time hidden away in his study, working on his next book. His wife, Alison, was the original 1960s Earth Mother whose whole life revolved around having and bringing up children. The children have all, unfortunately for Alison, now grown up. And then there's Ingrid, the Scandinavian au pair, still there after all these years. One wonders why.

There are six children. As the novel opens, they are all grown, and all bar Paul, the eldest and Alison's undisguised favourite, have flown the nest. From afar, they remember snapshots from their childhood, but everyone has a slightly different angle on the past, a different version of the family's history. Alison believes she was the perfect mother and that each of the children enjoyed a perfect upbringing in a perfect environment. Charles seems to contradict her with his sarcastic comments and Ingrid keeps her views to herself, but it is only Allersmead, the family home, that sees the complete picture, knows the whole story.

Like any family, there are secrets no one talks about. What really happened to Gina in the pond on her eighth birthday? What went on downstairs in the cellar game, with its Forfits [sic] and Penalties? Why is the au pair still there years after the children have grown? And why did she disappear for so long when the children were still so young? You can probably guess.

The way Lively illustrates the dynamics between the different members of the family at Allersmead is certainly the strong point of the novel. And, up to a point, the characterisation is equally strong. The point, though, is that there are almost too many characters for such a slim volume to fully explore. Half of the children are well drawn while the other (younger) half are just there in the background, never quite fully-forming on the page. Peripheral observers, like Charles' sister Corinna and her husband, are simply there to give a different point of view. Even the house in which the family lived, Allersmead, which is intended to be a character in its own right, never quite makes it convincingly enough. For me, the brushstrokes are too broad, too impressionistic. And then when the secrets are revealed, they are less shocking than I imagine the author intended. Some are predictable, others simply anticlimactic (several times I thought, is that it?)

One of the children, Roger, says to his wife (who finds the family 'exotic'), We were middle England, to the core. There are thousands and thousands of households like Allersmead. But then he thinks that might be so. He was right first time.

I have to confess I 'discovered' Penelope Lively late. For some reason, I always thought I wouldn't like her writing, but I was completely entranced and emotionally moved by her previous offering. Ultimately, though, I found this book something of an anticlimax.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Lively's previous novel, Consequences, was a far more moving account of family history.

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