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Family Album by Penelope Lively — chinks in the idyll

Cover of Family Album, a wonderful novel about the dynamics of a large middle class family

To outsiders, the sprawling Edwardian villa called Allersmead seems the perfect family home. A bit ramshackle. A tad chaotic. But decidedly a place filled with parental love, family celebrations and oceans of wholesome food.

It’s the atmosphere that matriarch Alison Harper has striven tirelessly to create. In her eyes she has succeeded. “This is a real family house,” she announces proudly to a daughter’s boyfriend on his first visit to this suburban paradise. “Such happy memories — everything reminds me of something. … Real old-fashioned family life — you can’t beat it. “

Protestations made so emphatically only a few pages into Penelope Lively’s Family Album, are an alert that this might not prove to be the definitive version of the truth. That proves to be the case as the story unfolds in snapshots from the present back to the 1970s and 1980s. Lively doesn’t so much challenge Alison Harper’s version as take a gigantic cleaver to this earth mother’s account of her middle class family.

We rummage through the memories of the Harper clan as each of the six offspring take a turn at recalling their formative years. Some events have become the stuff of legend. Like the time someone (who never owned up) tore up the manuscript of their father’s latest book. And the time a birthday party ended with one girl in hospital. They also look back on the final days of their “cellar games”.

But each child remembers these events slightly differently and few of them have memories that match with Alison’s recollections. As son Roger comments after one miserable British seaside holiday when they were teenagers: “So who’s right? Who sees it all?”

Inevitably we get to discover that unreliable memories are not the only chink in the Harper idyll. There is a secret, one hidden in plain site, but until now always skirted around and never openly acknowledged. It’s not revealed in dramatic fashion nor does it stand as a major turning point in the novel. But it goes somewhat to explain why Allersmead feels “a sort of empty stage”, despite Alison’s wish that it be filled with children and grand-children?

Five of her brood have flown the nest and rarely return. Only the eldest son Paul lives at home, the problem child with a history of drug and alcohol addiction. Meanwhile his siblings zip around the world, reporting from war zones, watching catwalk parades in the fashion capitals of Europe, touring with a dance company, and saving lives in Canadian paediatric clinics.

With one exception they don’t show any interest in bearing children, putting them at the opposite end of the spectrum from Alison for whom creating a family is almost a job.

This is all she ever wanted: children, and a house in which to stow them — a capacious, expansive house. And a husband of course. And a dear old dog.

Alison is a wonderfully concocted character, a woman who cares little for world affairs or her appearance ( Laura Ashley smocks are her thing) but is assiduous when it comes to recipes for lemon chicken and ratatouille. She’s the hub of the house, the woman who welcomes the kids home from school with “a proper tea” and will stay up late at night to prepare an extra special birthday cake.

At her side throughout is Ingrid, a Scandinavian au pair who is still at Allersmead long after the children have left. Husband Charles is largely confined to the role of onlooker, the man who pays the bills and plays his part in the baby-making machine before disappearing into his study to research his latest book.

It’s quite a sad little tale in many ways but there are also plenty of smiles and opportunities to roll the eyes in disbelief, chiefly over Alison’s gushing pronouncements on the joys of parenting (she prefers to call it Mothercraft to emphasise the role of the mother) . It’s hard not to laugh when she comes out with a gem like her thoughts on the process of childbirth:

All right, it hurt a bit, but not that much, none of hers had taken long, just a final hour or so of ouch! and heave, and there you were with the dear little bundle.

Family Album is a highly readable novel. Lively captures perfectly the atmosphere of the house with its clutter of childhood drawings and art projects but also shows the underlying tensions, especially between Alison and her husband. Everyone in the Harper household, including the au pair, is given a voice either directly or mediated through an omniscient narrator. Yet Lively also stands back and lets us observe the gaps between what is said and what is unsaid, showing how the past comes to shape the present.

Family Album by Penelope Lively: Footnotes

Penelope Lively is the British author of more than 50 fictional works for children and adults. She first achieved success with children’s fiction, starting with Astercote  in 1970. Her first novel for adults, The Road to Lichfield, was published in 1977 and made the shortlist for the Booker Prize. A later novel According to Mark also made it to the shortlist. She was named winner of the Booker Prize in 1987 prize for Moon Tiger, (link is to my review).

Family Album was one of the books I read for #20booksofsummer2021 . I’m counting it as book 11 in my #21in21 personal project where I am trying to read 21 books from my TBR that I acquired before 2021.

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