London: Viking, 2003.
£14.99, 240 pages, ISBN 0670913928.
Steven Marc Jones
Liverpool John Moores University
Lively bases her deceptively simple narrative on the transformative
effects of an accidental yet momentous discovery: the unearthing
of a forgotten photograph
lost among a mountain of papers. Glyn, widowed husband of the beguiling Kath,
finds a photograph taken fifteen years before. This artefact (for the photograph
really does take on the characteristics of historical evidence) is concealed
in an envelope marked "Do not open: Destroy". It reveals the secret
of Kaths secret relationship with Nick, her brother-in-law. In this disorientating
moment, Glyn finds that his view of his domestic history begins to crumble
and the identity of the woman he was married too is radically altered. Life
takes on a new and disturbing character. Rather than allowing this painful
revelation to sink back into the past, Glyn embarks upon a campaign to uncover
the truth. This is the beginning of a journey into the dark subtexts that underpin
his domestic routine and an investigation into the ways in which memory provides
him with a basic foundation for the ways in which he perceives the truth about
his history. "A stone has been cast into the reliable, immutable pond
of the past. Everything has swung and shattered, it is all beyond recovery".
The cornerstones of his middle-class life are undermined. Monogamy, honesty,
the rock solid sanctity of marriage are deconstructed and found to be veneers
concealing a richer, more dangerous truth. But there are darker implications:
The sense of really knowing his wife, Kath, is irreparably damaged and he
is forced to redefine his relationship with a woman who now seems a stranger.
So who was she? Was she ever the woman he thought she was?
Lively's writing is assured, a plain, unadorned prose composed of narrative
voices that perfectly evoke her characters and the suburban worlds in which
they move. Lively has a keen eye for the British middle-class landscape of
tasteful homes and tasteful lives. She understands perfectly the codes and
etiquettes of bourgeois life and her subversion of it is subtle and haunting.
Deftly moving between the past and present, she succeeds in producing a feeling
of timelessness, of a blending of the past and the present. Lively foregrounds
the ways in which accumulated experience creates the present, how the individual
is, in a very real sense, the product of events. Identity cannot be divorced
from experience. She elegantly embodies the themes of time and memory in
the symbol of the found photograph. It provides a touchstone for the narrative
that is simple yet potent: the cameras ability to capture the fleeting,
preserve the ephemeral.
The narrative interlinks a central cluster of characters: Glyn, a historian,
involved in ordering random events into an intelligible narrative, who was
married to the mercurial and preternaturally charming Kath, beautiful, dead
but absolutely present. Elaine, an intelligent, self-possessed businesswoman
whose passion for gardening reveals a desire to impose order on the physical
world. She is married to the feckless and charming Nick. There is a clear
mismatching amongst the couples. Elaine seems much more suited to Glyn. Nick
and Kath seem
entirely compatible. These mismatched unions are fragile and their unravelling
is unsurprising. Kath and Nicks illicit relationship offends middle-class
morality yet it is difficult to dismiss the essential rightness of the bond.
Nick recalls of his time with Kath "how the days took colour, how he brimmed
with energy", and we sympathise. Lively reveals a strict moral structure
underpinned by ambiguity, which provides the emotional fuel for the drama.
The characters are subtly interconnected by the memory of small events and
there is the powerful sense that these people find meaning and identity in
reviewing and constructing narratives around the memories of their lives.
The characterisations are well-drawn and convincing. Especially the women,
battle with their dilemmas in ways which allow to be both emotionally alive
and intellectually complex. Elaine is a very complete figure, an intelligent,
middle-aged woman, identified by her job, frustrated by her own limitations
and exasperated by those of others. The revelation of her husbands
affair with her sister sends her tumbling into an existential anguish that
moving and resonant with truth. To providing emotional contrast, Lively skilfully
evokes the voice of Polly in a way that seems entirely uncontrived.
The dynamic centre of the novel is the beguiling Kath. There is not just
one Kath, but a plethora of versions of her, "a continuous effect, some composite
being who is everything at once, no longer artificially confined to a specific
moment in time". Although mysteriously dead, the novel is heavy with Kaths
presence. The characters are haunted by memories of her and an intriguing picture
of her is built up through their recollections. It is a striking device to
create a narrative around an absent character and Lively succeeds in creating
a character that is, ironically, more vital than the other characters and consistently
appealing. It is Kaths appeal, her "glow", that allows us to
see her relationship with Nick in a morally ambiguous light. It is difficult
to view her actions as negative or immoral when Kath seems so full of good.
Shes almost otherworldly and the fact that she is dead contributes to
this sense of otherness. Kath effects those around her. She is an unsettling
influence and there is tension in her relationship with her sister: "Elaine
was strange where Kath was concerned."
There is the potential for a plot like this to become a ruminative novel of
ideas but The Photograph is more vital than this. Lively succeeds
in weaving in suspense, deftly employing the device of a secret revealed
and effective ways. When Elaine reveals her knowledge of the affair to Nick,
Lively breaks ups Nicks meandering inner monologue with staccato flashes
of his conversation with Elaine. It is an effective, cinematic technique
that points up the tension inherent in the situation. Lively remembers to
her readers as well as provoke philosophical self-examination.
The theme of historical research is embodied in Glyns career. He is accustomed
to examining historical facts and making sense of them, creative a coherent
narrative out of the remnants of the past. In his quest for the truth about
his marriage, he applies his professional skills to this most intimate area
of his life. He approaches the investigation into his wifes infidelity
in the same way he would approach an archaeological dig. This makes his disorientation
all the more poignant. His forensic technique signals a denial of the searing
irrationality of what he is experiencing. He applies himself to the task of
investigating his wife with an obsessiveness that borders on the pathological.
Glyns hunger for information about Kath has the potential to be absolutely
involving but Lively does not quite succeed in fully exploring it. There is
an unintentional comedy about the way in which he deals with the research that
damages the pathos and tension of the scenario. For example, the scene where
Glyn visits Claverdon is marred by the very obvious reference to Claverdons
gay relationship. Its a situation that seems more appropriate to dated
sitcoms than to psychological prose. At other times, the search for the real
Kath becomes a cat and mouse pursuit of the dead. Too much important information
is conveyed. The sequences that deal with the painting of Kath are haunting
and need more space for exploration. Finally, Glyn's obsession with Kaths
secret life begins to seem aggressive and unfair, the irrational behaviour
of a wounded husband bent on taking possession of his dead wifes memory.
This is an enjoyable novel but not a perfect one. Lively has a tendency to
distrust her readers ability to appreciate the dynamics of the plot,
so she over-explains things on occasions: "I cannot be doing with you
right now because I have just learned that the woman who was once my wife apparently
had an affair with her sisters husband." At times, Lively can over-emphasise
through metaphor the faulty system of memory: "[
] as some old pale
with holes and rusted seams. Alternatively, he imagines an extensive manuscript
of which there survive only a handful of charred fragments." Overall,
though, The Photograph is a satisfying read. Lively evokes a recognisably
cosy, predictable world, then explodes it. Grand themes are intelligently
explored and it is clear that this apparently mundane domestic drama is resonant
existential undercurrents. Certainty is inexorably bound up with memory.
Time distorts how we perceive the past and, as a consequence, the world begins
seem dangerously fluid. This is a dark-hearted story invoking a world stalked
by death, unreliability and half-truth. It is founded on the absence of someone
who seems "least likely to be dead" and peopled by fragile characters
on the brink of old age. Lively shows us a bleak landscape and offers no
easy solutions to the problems we encounter there. She successfully expresses
moral and emotional ambiguities, subverting our certainties. She forces us
to reconsider how we view ourselves, our histories, how we construct comfortable
fictions to mask unpalatable realities. She reminds us that what we imagine
to be the plain truth about our lives is mercurial, a rag-bag of perceptions
and memory fragments that seduce and lie.