Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

The Photograph
Penelope Lively
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 Kath’s 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 camera’s 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 Nick’s 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, who 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 husband’s affair with her sister sends her tumbling into an existential anguish that is both 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 Kath’s 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 Kath’s 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. She’s 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 in subtle and effective ways. When Elaine reveals her knowledge of the affair to Nick, Lively breaks ups Nick’s 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 entertain her readers as well as provoke philosophical self-examination.

The theme of historical research is embodied in Glyn’s 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 wife’s 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. Glyn’s 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 Claverdon’s gay relationship. It’s 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 Kath’s secret life begins to seem aggressive and unfair, the irrational behaviour of a wounded husband bent on taking possession of his dead wife’s memory.

This is an enjoyable novel but not a perfect one. Lively has a tendency to distrust her reader’s 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 sister’s 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 with existential undercurrents. Certainty is inexorably bound up with memory. Time distorts how we perceive the past and, as a consequence, the world begins to 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 complex 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.

All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.