Consequences / Penelope Lively
Toronto: Key Porter, c2007.
Last week I asked for questions about books I hadn't yet reviewed; two of those books were by Penelope Lively. And I still haven't reviewed them, or answered those questions! So here is a little bit about the first one I read, Consequences, which got me going on her works -- I'm reading a third one now. And, I've just seen that she has a new book coming out this fall, entitled Family Album. It seems to carry on in the same vein as the ones I've read; the struggles of family and relationships over a lifetime. Plus it all circles around a house. Can not wait!
But as for this one -- it is a novel of three generations of women; the title comes from a mention of a parlour game the first generation played, called Consequences, predicated on the meeting of two randomly chosen people causing a strange and unforeseen result. This whole book, then, is a look at what results from a chance meeting of two people in prewar England.
Debutante Lorna meets artist Matt in a London park in 1935. They fall madly in love, get married and move to a small and very rustic cottage in Somerset. They have a daughter, Molly. Matt goes to war. You can imagine the result.
Lorna and Molly move to London and eventually Lorna marries Lucas, Matt's best friend. Molly grows up, does not get married, has a daughter, and ends up working in the arts field setting up poetry readings and literary events. She meets a poet and finds her own True Love.
Molly's daughter Ruth breaks the mould somewhat; she does get married and lives a conservative life, with two children and not much to do with the arts. But, she does not find her true love in marriage and gets divorced. Then her interest in family history grows and she tracks down the Somerset cottage where her grandparents had lived and loved so long ago. And guess what awaits her there?
This brief and static summary gives the bones of the story. But it is so much more. Lively's ability to create a setting is truly admirable. The Somerset cottage and surrounding landscape feel very real; Matt paints murals on the walls and while they are talking about the images they seem so present that I could almost feel the plaster under my hands. The three women are the main characters, each in their turn; I liked Lorna, loved Molly and tolerated Ruth. Each lives in such different circumstances, but I think I enjoyed reading about Molly as she is in her prime in midcentury. The surroundings were delightful, and her active involvement first in a library and then in the literary world was of particular interest to me. The focus on children, however necessary to the continuance of the family line and thus the storyline, did not appeal to me as much and perhaps that is why I found Ruth's story a bit more dull. Lorna gets the most space, and her world is nearly cinematic in its conception, but maybe it's the distance that makes it seem more romantic somehow. The war and all its attendant tragedy has a patina over it which seems to colour my reading about that era, an effect which I have to consciously try to counteract. The writing itself is masterful, parts are quite quoteable, and the straightforward chronological progression of the story is brought neatly full circle at the end. I very much enjoyed reading this and as I mentioned, it has spurred me on to read more of her work. I read her amazing children's books years ago and what I mostly remember of them is the atmosphere. Lively is very talented at creating a mood in her books, a skill I find admirable. What really made me finally pick this book up, however, was a mention of it a while back by Kerry, at her blog Pickle Me This. She quoted Molly's thoughts about the library she works at for a brief time, and it was so delightful I knew I had to read it. Here is the quote:
It sometimes seemed to Molly that the library was a place of silent discord and anarchy, its superficial tranquility concealing a babel of assertion and dispute. Fiction is one strident lie-- or rather, many competing lies; history is a long narrative of argument and reassessment; travel shouts of self-promotion; biography is just pushing a product. As for autobiography... And all this is just fine. That is the function of books: they offer a point of view, they offer many conflicting points of view, they provoke thought, they provoke irritation and admiration and speculation. They take you out of yourself and put you down somewhere else from whence you never entirely return. If the library were to speak, Molly felt, if it were to speak with a thousand tongues, there would be a deep collective growl coming from the core collection up on the high shelves, where the voices of the nineteenth century would be setting precedents, the bleats and cries of a new opinion, new fashion, new style. The surface repose of a library is a cynical deception.
I loved that! There is another atmospheric moment I'd like to share with you; in this scene, Molly and her daughter Ruth are having dinner with Lucas and Molly's brother Simon. The power goes out and they light candles and continue on.
There are so many shadows in this room, she thought. Candlelight creates a further dimension. No wonder people used to believe so fervently in ghosts. Space seems suggestive, packed with possibility. It's Caravaggio as opposed to David Hockney. The Fulham kitchen had become a glowing cavern, its mundane furnishings muted, turned into vague murky shapes. The light picked out faces, hands, the red intensity of wine, the white cascade of wax from candles. Everyone had acquired a new presence; Lucas and Simon were craggy Hogarthian characters, Ruth was romantically pretty. When you can't see things clearly, thought Molly, they are open to interpretation. What is that shape in the corner? The small dark blob on the dresser shelf? What elegant hands Lucas has.
I'll leave you with those samples of Lively's writing. I hope they will intrigue you and perhaps encourage you to give her work a try. It's very rewarding.
(questions will be answered in tomorrow's post on my next Lively, Moon Tiger)