ConceQuences By Penelope Lively
I have read novels by Penelope Lively for many years as each new novel is published and many of the earlier books I remember enjoying immensely, but now, after20 years, I have forgotten most of the detail. The first I read was Moon Tiger in 1987. It won the Booker Prize for fiction that year. Readers can usually trust that a Booker Prize winning novel is going to be a worthwhile read. Moon Tiger was the story of a volatile and passionate woman – her life as a journalist, memories of a love affair during the Second World War, and her relationship with her brother. It is set in Egypt, England and Europe and is told from several points of view; often by the woman herself as she lies dying in hospital reflecting on her life. There is also the diary of the brother, Tom, and his descriptions of the tanks rolling into Budapest and the destruction of war.
It is not only a story about the death of an elderly woman, but of her acceptance that as her life is ending, she is able to make peace with her successes and failures.
Penelope Lively grew up in Egypt and was educated in England, where she still lives. She is a very prolific writer of both adult and children's books. Her first novel, The Road to Litchfield, published in 1977, was short-listed for the Booker Prize, as was According to Mark, published in 1984.
Her novel Heatwave I remember quite vividly. It is the story of two generations in the British countryside one exceptionally hot summer in England – a summer when the usually green fields were brown and many authors, including Peter Robinson and Reginald Hill, set their novels in this unique year of drought and intense heat.
The heat of that summer affects the actions of the characters who behave in a much more extreme and passionate manner than they might have in more moderate temperatures. I think I am ready to read these again, as I am so many books I read 20 years or more ago.
Consequences has just been released and I read it right away, remembering how much I had enjoyed Penelope Lively's earlier books. This is a novel that tells the story of three generations of a family in England – London and Devon – from just before the Second World War to the present. These are the years of Penelope Lively's life – she has lived through all of this. She would be the age of Lorna, the first woman we meet. Lorna is the daughter of a well-to-do businessman in London. She is stifled by the very proper world of her parents and when she falls in love with Matthew, a young artist, she does not hesitate to leave her home, marry him, and go off to live in the countryside in poverty. That fall, before the war, the countryside was lush and "There were many blackberries that year, whortleberries up on the hill, mushrooms and hazelnuts." In London there is a blackout but no bombing yet – there are ration books and restricted train travel and all are waiting – including Lorna and Matthew with their young daughter.
The title Consequences did make this reader think of choices and consequences – what is choice and what is fate? We have only such a small amount of control over our lives really – as do these characters. They make choices that they believe they must. Some result in tragedy and some in joy, but that is life, reflected in literature. For the population of Britain during the war, life became "before the war, and after the war". For those at home the future lay ahead in "after the war". Real life was suspended, and for most would never be the same again, as the country, indeed, the world had changed dramatically "the century moved on, taking the cottage with it".
This is a book that is difficult to write about without giving away the story of the characters. You don't want to know who lives and who dies before you read the book. I will say that one character eventually works in a library and, for book lovers, it is a wonderful world to fall into as "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 pushing a product; as for autobiography…this is the function of books: they offer a point of view, they offer many conflicting points of view, they provoke thought, and 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."
This book is about the connections of the generations - full of mostly empathetic characters, people who try to do their best for those they love. We follow Lorna, her daughter Molly, and her granddaughter Ruth and their family members over more than 60 years. We see the world change and we see the most recent generations explore the history of the earlier generations – observing the consequences of the actions of those who came before. There is memory, the memory of those who have died. They are still alive in memory and, in the imagination of their descendents, never really gone as long as there is this generation to generation passing on of the family stories and artifacts – a continuity of family. There is the discovery of the lives of the earlier generations – even if it feels like an intrusion into another person's life.
As the novel concludes, Ruth observes "Only now in mid-life - for that was where she was after all - did she see this background and her very presence as a distinctly precarious event. This puts you in your place somehow. Mid-life she found was not a bad time. She felt more positive than ever she had in youth, more deliberate…life might be accidental, but she could feel that she had met its challenges."