My latest batch of books from Lovely Mum included The Family Album by Penelope Lively, which is her sixteenth novel (Lively, I mean, not Lovely Mum, who’s not one for making up stories). It follows frumpy Alison and her academic hermit husband, Charles. The pair have six grown-up children and a sprawling family home where they were all raised, which has “one particular secret of which nobody speaks…” according to the blurb.
This air of mystery centres on a locked cellar door, which is alluded to frequently (and with a certain menace) in the early pages of the book. Unfortunately, the hints don’t unravel into anything that impressive. In a lot of ways the Harpers are a normal family – they have their skeletons, all of them, there is unhappiness there and there is a twisted sense of kinship going on but it’s certainly not Please Daddy, No. Well, good. Down with misery lit, I say. Does an author have to degrade all her characters to get a good story out? Not a good author, and Penelope Lively is a good author. I believed her characters, I wanted to read on. I require little more.
The star turn of the novel is Alison, the career-earth mother. The fearsome guardian of the family hearth whose rallying cry is: “family, that’s what counts, a real proper family”. She is the all-baking, all-worrying, all-fussing Edwardian mother in the Edwardian house where modernity must not intrude. She is nothing like my own mother, who has her bellybutton pierced and whose cupboards do not contain flour or yeast or even spices apart from salt and pepper. Yes, Lovely Mum is the anti-Alison, and she is fond of my father – they sit up and drink whiskey together – whereas Charles locks himself away in his study, desperately trying to retain some privacy in a sea of children. Oh, I can just see my own mother crossing her legs at the idea of six. That’s a lot of fishfingers you’d need to buy, she’s thinking. But it doesn’t faze Alison. No, what fazes her is the idea that her brood will fly the coop – that families change and children don’t stay children forever.
We are misled by the idea that this is a book about secrets. What goes on in the cellar is neither here nor there – the book is about people and families and how odd the concept of family is. It is about blood and also sometimes it is not. It is about shared experiences and the gaping chasms that occur when siblings grow up and spread their wings. It is about what it is to fly the family nest or to stay within it, long after you were meant to. It is about the physical, concrete place of home but it is not only that.
In a lot of ways it is about that important lesson that children of all families, even very traditional ones, must learn – that families are comprised of humans, all of them fallible, all of them better in some aspects than you expect them to be – all of them weaker and more foolish in some ways than you ever imagined…