A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively

A House Unlocked cover

I’ve been enjoying reading some of Penelope Lively‘s novels this year so when I saw A House Unlocked sitting in the biography section of the library I just had to borrow it.

Actually I was expecting something quite different from the title of the book, I thought it would be about the house she had grown up in, but the house of the title is her grandparents’ house, a large and very grand place which was run with the help of umpteen servants and gardeners. Lively grew up in Egypt but was sent back to the house for holidays, she was an only child of divorced parents so there were no reminiscences of the things that she and siblings had got up to in the house. She tells the story of the house through objects that were in it, but at times it’s more about social history, as an embroidery sampler stitched by her grandmother reminds her of the evacuees that had stayed in the house during the war. But instead of writing about those specific children Lively chose to explain how the evacuation of millions of children and some women had been achieved, and the consequent shock to all concerned. That may be news to some readers I suppose.

The locals were appalled to discover that all of the city children seemed to have lice and Lively comments that that is something that has changed since her younger days as now even middle-class children have nits, including her grand-children. That was news to me as I’m very thankful that I’ve never had to deal with such things, despite having had two boys. Prevention is best, comb their hair with a fine toothed comb at least four times a day and you’ll have no problems is what I suggest!

The hymn book reminds her of the church and that leads her to go into detail of the statistics of the church attendance of the Church of England over the years, it has dwindled drastically although church going was never in a healthy state, not even in Victorian times. Although she herself is a non-believer, she attends the church more to support the actual upkeep of the building and stop it from being deconsecrated and turned into flats or a wine bar.

I found the parts detailing the garden most interesting, how such a huge place was set out and planted. As she freely admits, if it hadn’t been for the very many Scottish plant hunters of the 19th century lots of the trees and plants would never have arrived in Britain’s gardens and estates.

It wasn’t until almost the end of the book that Lively explains what financed the very comfortable life style. Her family name was Reckit, which I immediately recognised as the well known manufacturer of household cleaning/laundry products such as Reckitt’s Blue, Silvo, Brasso and Robin Starch – do you remember that? It was obviously a very lucrative business although as the family was ‘trade’ they wouldn’t have fitted in with some snooty people’s idea of high society.

Social mobility that came about post World War 2 meant that her husband Jack Lively had been able to get to Cambridge despite being brought up in a council house and in an earlier generation she would have been very unlikely ever to have met him, never mind married him. I found those observations quite depressing as over the last forty years or so things have definitely gone backwards, with first evening classes having to be paid for and more recently university education no longer being free.

So as I said, I found this book to be a wee bit disappointing, I think fiction writers often don’t hit the right spot with me when they turn to memoirs, I suspect some of them hold too much back. But I might be being unfair as I immediately started reading Diana Athill’s book Alive, Alive Oh! after this one and for me that one was much better – but that’s for another day!

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

The Photograph

The Photograph by Penelope Lively was published in 2003 and I loved it. I’m becoming quite a fan of Penelope Lively and it’s beyond me why this one doesn’t seem to have won any awards.

Glyn is a widower and an academic who in the past also had a successful career fronting popular TV documentaries. He has never thrown any of his writing out, old lecture notes and scripts are all stored in a big cupboard half-way up the stairs. While looking for something in the cupboard he discovers a photograph, it’s a group photo of old friends but in the background he can see his now dead wife Kath and she has her back to the camera. She’s holding hands with her sister’s husband and it’s obvious that the pair have been having an affair.

Kath and her sister Elaine who was six years older than her, had been orphaned when their mother died when Kath was just sixteen years old. Elaine was already starting out on her career and never gave a thought for the younger girl who had been so close to their mother. The fact that Kath only ever had temporary jobs was seen as her own fault, but she never had the chance to study for anything.

Glyn becomes obsessed, wondering if she had been having affairs with multiple men throughout their marriage. He ends up tracking down old friends and work colleagues of Kath’s, trying to get information from them. From things that they say it seems that the Kath that he knew was quite different from the one that they knew. Yes, Kath was beautiful and had poise and charm, but some people had picked up on her sadness and her beauty was seen as a liability to her. Near strangers knew more about Kath than her closest family did.

When Glyn informs Kath’s sister Elaine that her husband had an affair with Kath it results in meltdown within that marriage as you would expect, but all involved think back to the times when they had been too busy for Kath, they had no time to listen to her as they were all wrapped up in their various careers. Elaine is a very successful garden designer, very well off and for years she has been supporting her husband after his once successful publishing company had folded.

The photograph has started a series of videos playing inside people’s heads as they recall incidents in their past lives and realise that things weren’t at all as they assumed them to be. They wish they had given her time and listened to her. I think we’ve probably all had that experience at some point.

The Photograph is a sad but thought provoking read, I gave it a five on Goodreads.

This book is about

Heat Wave by Penelope Lively

 Heat Wave cover

Heat Wave by Penelope Lively was first published in 1996.

Pauline is a middle aged lady, mother of Teresa who is married to Maurice and Teresa is mother of Luke who is a toddler. Maurice is a writer and is years older than Teresa. He’s wrapped up in his own writing career and really doesn’t even have much interest in his son.

Pauline works in publishing as an editor and she has moved out of London and has bought two adjoining rural cottages called World’s End. Originally she had rented out one of the cottages, but when Teresa and Maurice married Teresa was given the use of the larger cottage as a weekend retreat for her small family.

Maurice has decided that World’s End will be the ideal place to finish his travel book so Teresa has them as neighbours for the whole of a very hot summer. When Maurice needs help from a colleague, he and his girlfriend come to stay at World’s End off and on. It gives Pauline an opportunity to observe Maurice closely and she doesn’t like what she sees.

Pauline hasn’t liked Maurice from the beginning and unfortunately she was the one who introduced her daughter to him at a party in her London home. She has the horrible experience of watching her daughter fall for him and as Maurice reminds Pauline so much of her self-obsessed and serial philandering ex-husband she fears for Teresa, but is completely powerless to protect her daughter from what she knows is going to happen. It seems that despite having virtually no contact with her father Teresa is attracted to the same type.

This is a good read with for me a satisfying ending. I do like Penelope Lively’s writing and will be reading more of her books in the future. Nine years before writing this book she won the Booker prize with Moon Tiger.

According to Mark by Penelope Lively

According to Mark by Penelope Lively was first published in 1984. I think I’ve only read a couple of other books by the author, but I read and enjoyed Moon Tiger not so long ago. I borrowed According to Mark from a local library, and by the way, the closure of 16 libraries in Fife has been put on hold for the moment, local councillors aren’t happy about the closures, as you would expect.

Anyway, to the book. I didn’t really expect to enjoy this one, but I put my faith in Lively as she’s very well respected I believe, and sure enough it turned out to be very enjoyable.

Mark is a literary biographer, engaged in writing the biography of Gilbert Strong, a writer who has been dead for years. Mark thinks that he knows everything about Strong but he decides to contact Strong’s granddaughter Carrie, to interview her and look around the old family home which is where Carrie’s garden centre business is based.

Mark has a bit of a middle age meltdown and falls for Carrie, but she is really only interested in plants and flowers, she has had very little education because her mother was a bit of a hippy, more interested in men and partying. One of the men took pity on Carrie and taught her to read, but she has huge gaps in her knowledge of the world, on the other hand she speaks fluent French as she spent so much of her childhood there.

At one point Mark encourages her to read Jane Austen’s Emma and at the end of it she realises that she has more than a passing resemblance to one of the characters.

This is a book which looks at everything from the various characters’ point of view and nothing is really as it seems. When Mark wonders why Carrie is looking at a discarded cigarette packet on the ground – she is of course looking at a wild flower near it.

Diana, Mark’s wife, is a very annoying person, one of those women who ‘manages’ her husband to such an extent that she is more like the mother of a small child – to me anyway. Possibly another Emma-esque character. They do exist though, those wife/mummy women, and no doubt it works for some people, although it always makes me feel squeamish.

Early on in this book I did think that it might be a bit of a dud but it turned out to be a really good read.

Penelope Lively and Fanny Trollope from the Guardian

It’s nearly the weekend again and I’m just getting around to linking to a couple of the articles which appeared in last Saturday’s Guardian review, where does the time go?

Anyway, if you’re interested in Penelope Lively you might be like to read her article on old age.

And Lucy Ellmann writes about her hero – Fanny Trollope.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively

Earlier in the year I read and enjoyed Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively so when I saw How It All Began in my local library last week I thought I would give it a go. When I got home with it I was surprised to discover that it was published in 2011, I don’t read an awful lot of modern fiction nor do I keep as up to date with new publications as I should do. This is a bookish book as Charlotte, although past retiring age, is now teaching adult students to read, so there are plenty of old favourites mentioned.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this one so much so that I found myself googling Lively to see how old she is. I know that is probably terribly ageist of me but it does sometimes happen that people stick at things too long instead of bowing out gracefully when they’ve run out of ideas or just lost the ability to write as well as they once did. Lively just seems to get better with old age, or should I say – maturity. She was born in 1933 so she could be said to be ‘getting on a bit’ but honestly, you’d never think it.

How It All Began begins with Charlotte, a lady probably about the same age as the author, falling down in the street, as it says in the book – the pavement rises up and hits her. It turns out that Charlotte has been mugged and is hospitalized with a broken hip. The story is about how this incident has a knock on effect for so many people, beginning with Charlotte’s daughter Rose and her husband Gerry who look after her in their home until she’s well enough to live on her own again.

Then there’s Anton, Jeremy, Stella, Marion, Henry and Mark, most of whom only know Charlotte vaguely, if at all. But their lives are changed by her temporary incapacity. It’s the Butterfly Effect of chaos theory in action but all the strands of the storyline are beautifuly tied up, which is a plus for me, I’m not keen when characters just fizzle out and are left dangling, as some writers do.

Another plus is that just about all of the characters are likeable, well there’s maybe one who is a bit of a rotter, nobody is perfect of course but I do hate books which have no likeable characters in them at all, it’s impossible to like a book if you don’t care about the people in it.

Moon Tiger won the Booker prize way back in 1987 and I think this book has been nominated for at least one literary prize.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

This book was first published in 1987 and is another one from my 2011 Reading List, it was a very quick read at just 207 pages but I did enjoy it. I’ve got a feeling that I’ve read at least one other book by this author but it’s so long ago – pre kids, and I’m not absolutely sure.

Anyway, Claudia Hampton is in hospital and on her way out of this world, she’s elderly but has lived an eventful life. She was one of the very few female war correspondents in Egypt in World War II and the bulk of the book is Claudia looking back on her experiences of the western desert campaign in 1941. After the war she becomes well known as a writer of history books, but in the end it’s her own history which keeps her and the reader entertained.

She’s very ill and drifting in and out of consciousness, reliving her life and being interrupted now and again by various visitors and nurses. Along the way the reader meets all the people who have been important in Claudia’s life and witnesses the very strange relationship which she has with her brother Gordon.

As I said, I enjoyed this book but I’ve been quite brief with the details of the story because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else who might want to read it. I rarely read much in the way of blurb or introductions until I’ve finished reading a book, and I just turned to see what was said of this one, only to discover that just about the whole story is written in the inside flap! Why do they do that? I’m so glad that I didn’t read it beforehand.

Moan over – and I’ll be reading more by Penelope Lively in the future.