Penelope Lively has long been one of my favourite contemporary writers. Once more she plays with the idea of memory in a novel that is not linear, but jumps around in just the same way that we remember the past.
Family Album is the story of a large middle class family and is told through the eyes of the parents, and the six children, who are all adults when the novel starts. What appears to be an ideal existence in a large and rambling home, Allersmead, actually turns out to be anything but. There is a skeleton in the family cupboard, and it gradually becomes apparent that it is known and acknowledged, although never explicitly acknowledged by the parents.
It’s often stated that a family that eats together, stays together. But this is not the case and the novel ends with the siblings widely scattered and keeping in touch by email. Thus a tale that starts slowly and that expands gradually, is reduced to the shortened messages conveyed through hyperspace.
Penelope Lively again proves that scratching the surface reveals that things are never quite what they seem, and that we don’t all take away the same impressions from shared experiences.
I’ve been a Penelope Lively fan for years, so I jumped at the opportunity of attending a radio recording of her talking about her Booker prize winning novel, Moon Tiger. I’ve been to the BBC Radio Theatre several times, but this was a World Service programme, so it took place at Bush House.
The experience was a completely different one. We were taken down a couple of flights of stairs and across a courtyard then down a further couple of flights, ending up in the bowels of Bush House. Having started out at the Kingsway entrance to the building, we were now over on the Strand side. In a highly civilised manner we were offered glasses of wine before going into the studio, where Penelope was already seated with Harriett Gilbert. There were only about 30 of us in the small studio, and I was told that mine was to be the second question of the programme.
After Harriett introduced Penelope, the writer read a short passage from the novel before taking the first question. The pattern of the programme was a series of questions, some taken from the audience, others put to Penelope by Harriett, who had received them by email, and a couple more came in by phone from around the world. It was interesting to take into account the questions posed by others and to learn of some of the writer’s insights into her working processes and the building up of character.
My question was on the conflicting perspectives given in the novel, others asked about the research put in to build up a story, why the story didn’t have a necessarily happy ending and how much of the writer was in the protagonist.
It will be interesting to listen to the programme when it is broadcast in a few weeks, especially as our hour and ten minutes in the studio will be edited down to 53 minutes. After that the programme will remain in the BBC’s archives indefinitely.