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Family Album by Penelope Lively

Finding a new Penelope Lively novel in a box of books is like discovering a gem among pebbles on a beach. All those pebbles are quite fine but the gem is something truly special.

Family Album is no exception. We immediately meet Gina, and it is Gina who remains the primary voice in a large cast of characters.

We have a family – the eldest child Paul, then Gina, Sandra, Roger, Katie and Clare – the parents Charles and Alison, and the “au pair girl” Ingrid who still lives with the family although all of the children are now grown and gone from Allersmead. Allersmead is another character really - the home in which they all grew up.

We begin with Gina returning home with her, possibly long term, boyfriend, Philip. Ans we meet the family, as they appear; the parents and Paul, and Ingrid in residence. The others are coming home to celebrate their parent’s silver wedding anniversary. Philip notices the family photographs; the children aging and increasing in number until there are six. Birthdays were important to this family, Gina remembering the feeling of having that one day – her day, a day on which she was the most important person in the family.

Charles is an author, living on a private income from an ancestor who made his fortune in cleaning products. He spends his days in his study writing, and the rest of his time thinking about what he is going to write next. The dog greets him in a way that none of his children do – Charles is not to be bothered.

At this family gathering it does not take long for the sparks to fly among the siblings, and between the parents. We sense that there is something in the past that this family does not discuss. Gina does not want to talk about her family with Philip – who finds this brood quite fascinating. Allersmead holds not only the possessions of the lifetime of a large family, but all of the secrets and the cargo of their past.

There are memories revealed as we progress through the novel. An injured child at a birthday party, a family holiday to Cornwall, where each of them have different memories of what happened during that time – and of the importance of those memories.

Alison, whose own birthdays were always celebrated with much fuss and bother, is now “oppressed with age. Not her own. The children, who are no longer children, except Clare, and perhaps Roger, who is on the cusp. The others are disappearing over the horizon, and she is aghast. This should not be happening. Not yet.” Alison is a mother - it is all she ever wanted to be and she tries to hold on to that role – to be in control of her family, with all her might.

These adult children are also thinking of their childhood, but now with an adult perspective. Roger “sees suddenly the chasm between himself and Susan…that unbridgeable gulf between two people which is the product of their early years. Childhood – which sets the scene, the determining scene……..which you do not remember except in cinematic fragments…”

Each of the siblings is re-examining childhood as they establish independent lives. Gina remembers her mother – “You were never my favourite child,” she says. Mum says. And Gina is thrown. She is thrown in a way that is entirely uncharacteristic. She is the one who is capable, self-sufficient, independent, who takes what comes her way and deals with it”. Gina has always known that Paul is the favourite – the pampered, the forgiven – and the one who has not found his way. What Alison does not understand for all her uber-parenting is how much this hurts Gina, who thinks “Never my favorite child. Well one hadn’t thought one was, and does it matter? Somewhere, in some deep tender unsuspected crevice, it does.”

This novel examines relationships, between parents and children, siblings with one another, and marital partners. As Gina wonders about the future of her relationship with Philip, she thinks “Perhaps need is the crucial element in any relationship, the necessary bonding material. Sexual need; emotional need; material need. But both parties must be needy, in one way or another, or things will run amok.” Perhaps that is also true of parents and children.

There are some authors who have that one great book to write, but somehow Penelope Lively has the ability to continually write very good books. I have enjoyed each and every novel by Penelope Lively over the past forty years and this one is as much a “gem” as all the others.

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