The Photograph, by Penelope Lively

Glyn is looking through some old files and comes across an envelope which says "Do not open - destroy". He opens it, and finds a photograph of his late-wife Kate, which appears to reveal something about her past that he never suspected.

This was a delightful book; short but very sweet. The characters in the book are all very well drawn and believable: Glyn, the university professor who can't help himself from researching and gathering evidence to get to the root of a puzzle; Elaine, Kate's sister, who's made a successful career as a respected garden designer, Nick, Elaine's husband, who has never grown up but hasn't needed to since Elaine will support him, and Mary, Kate's friend, one of those rare and perhaps blessed souls who are able to make their way through life without the need to be shored up by companionship, or dependants, or love.

Throughout the book, Kate's presence makes itself felt, as it does with the lives of all of the characters, and so even though she doesn't actually appear, you get to know what Kate's like as well.

The whole thing was written really well and was a pleasure to read. Some bits I thought were worth quoting:

Nick was perhaps the funniest person: he has a failed business venture behind him, and keeps thinking up ideas for new ventures, which soon fizzle out as his enthusiasm wanes and he moves on to something else, and never blaming himself when things don't work out. "Nick has always given problems a wide beth. Problems should not be what life is about...above all, you never let youself get rattled if things aren't working out the way they should. Just move on. Cut your losses and forget about it". Nick applies this philosophy to Elaine too: "Nick does not like rows. In fact, he never has rows - not with anyone. If a row situation threatens, he somehow is just not there any more. This technique has worked with Elaine, up to a point. It is difficult for anyone to get satisfactorily confrontational with someone who will not confront back."

When Glyn tries to remember details of his past, he notices that "All that swilling speech in the head comes from others, never from oneself...the operation of memory would seem to be largely receptive: what is seen, what is heard. We are the centre of the action, but somehow blot ourselves out of the picture. Glyn rakes around some more and finds that he cannot much hear his own voice. Just occasionally, in delivery of some lecture, or holding forth on camera, but that will be because the lines have been committed to paper and so are familiar. But in all those scenes with others, he is silent - he who seldom was."

Not sure why I've not read more by Penelope Lively; perhaps I should.

Completed : 12-May-2007

[nickoh] [2007 books] [books homepage]