Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

The-Photograph-Penelope-LivelyOne day, Glyn is rooting around in a cupboard full of old paperwork, looking for an academic paper he needs for his work. A stack falls out and as he is gathering the papers up he is startled by an envelope with his late wife Kath’s handwriting on the front: ‘Don’t Open – Destroy’. He does nothing of the sort, of course, and opens it to find The Photograph. Taken around 15 years previously, the photograph shows Kath holding hands with another man; her sister’s husband Nick.

What follows is the fall-out of the revelation. Glyn tells Elaine, Kath’s sister and wife of Nick. Elaine and Nick’s 30 year old daughter Polly finds the situation increasingly difficult to deal with, especially when Nick ends up sleeping on her sofa. Elaine struggles to make sense of both her current predicament and indeed the years of her marriage. Glyn, meanwhile, takes a scientific approach and decides that he needs to research every moment of Kath’s life with him to see what else he might have missed. Nick’s former work business partner – and the person who took the photograph – Oliver hasn’t thought about any of this for years and could do without the whole thing, frankly.

Of course, the events of the present day are not what the novel is really about. At the heart of the novel is a woman who, in a literal sense, no longer exists. She is present only in the memories of those still living and our image of her can only be a composite one, fitted together through listening to a cast of characters who each have their own distinct impressions of her. There is not one single Kath, but many, revealed to us “as a continuous effect, some composite being who is everything at once, no longer artificially confined to a specific moment in time”. We are all like that. Different people will have different impressions of us, always, but since Kath is dead, she cannot provide an explanation for anything she may have said or done. Any explanations, if explanations there can be, must be found through contemplation with a memory or memories. And just as the living characters in the novel develop their own understandings of Kath as the story progresses, so we the readers only understand the real sadness of Kath’s life at the end of the book.

The Photograph is a deeply skilful novel, and Lively expertly tells us just enough to keep us turning the pages. Her character portraits are remarkable; in this novel’s cast of characters she manages to create a group of people who are almost universally unlikeable but yet still invoke an element of sympathy as their pasts become clearer. My problem is this: I have only read one other novel by Penelope Lively, called Perfect Happiness, which is about a grieving spouse finding out things about their late loved one that they never knew. A photograph provides the central evidence for the unknown facts. Sound familiar? Yes, I thought so too. Both novels are very good, I should point out. They are full of brilliantly drawn characters, and both pack a powerful emotional punch. Both are compellingly told. But they do have their similarities, which is a bit of a shame. Perhaps it is inevitable in an output as prolific as Lively’s, and perhaps it is just straight up bad luck that I have only read those two out of all of her catalogue. I do keep meaning to read her Booker-winning Moon Tiger. As far as I can tell that one doesn’t have anything to do with incriminating photographs.

Penelope Lively: The Photograph (London: Penguin, 2004). ISBN 9780141011943, RRP £8.99.

2 comments on “The Photograph by Penelope Lively

  1. Cathy746books
    October 13, 2014

    I haven’t read any Penelope Lively before, but I have a few of her books. This one sounds great.

  2. Jackie
    October 13, 2014

    Hmmm, that is weird that 2 of her books would have so many similar elements. Do you think “Photograph” is the better one? I can see how this idea of exploring a person through memories would be irresistible for a novelist, especially considering how many angles and resolutions it would provide.
    And I found your description of the characters as “almost universally unlikable” intriguing. That’s always off putting for a reader, yet doesn’t have to ruin a book, considering “The English Patient” and “The Great Gatsby” had unlikable characters, yet were still good books.
    I’m curious to see how this story would play out, thanks for introducing us to this author, whom I was unfamiliar with.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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