Family Album - Book of the Month
by Penelope Lively
Allersmead still stands, impressive in its early Edwardian elegance, its grounds undisturbed by modern gardening. The gravel in the drive has worn to grains; muddy boots and paws have mellowed the black and white marble tiles in the hall; an imposing staircase could do with a dust; long windows in the drawing room open to a wide veranda overlooking a garden rich in stately trees. At the far end of the hall an unassuming door leads into an Edwardian kitchen dominated by a scrubbed wooden table big enough to seat all nine members of the family and whichever of their friends have happened by.
In former days, gargantuan meals would have been served by servants in the dining room of the house: roast haunches and sides, whole fish, shapes, savouries, bowls of home grown grapes, large round cheeses wrapped in crisp white linen, table centres of cyclamen from the glasshouse. But today it is fish fingers and baked beans served at the kitchen table by Alison to her husband Charles, her six children and the au pair. Alison is an excellent cook but limits the menu to child-friendly food. Her husband's mind remains in the book he is writing. To Charles the food is merely fuel with which to stoke his mind and body in order to finish his book. The children have happened to him, Alison happened to him, even the au pair. Which is fine by him. But his life is lived in his panelled study with its bookcases loaded with Carlyle, Freud, Shelley, Stendhal, Manilowski. The study door has a small bolt on the inside.
Charles never asks to see the housekeeping accounts. He does not interfere in domestic dramas and crises. He remains aloof even when he is the crisis. He does not push the pram, nor does he want to drive the car (and hardly ever knows the way). Most of the children are born in the substantial matrimonial bed, when exasperating midwives would refer to him as Daddy. "Someone's ready to see their Daddy now" would summon him, eventually, to the bedside where he would register delight in the new baby, while trying not to be reminded of the pig baby in Alice.
Alison is to remember those halcyon years for the rest of her life: she is never to lose her joy in being pivotal to her large family. There are ups and downs, and Alison is emotional and sometimes volatile, but she rides things out and the family survives.
The children grow up untrammelled by paternal admonition. No heart to heart chats, no benevolent advice, no patriarchal guidance clouds their day. Alison, though intensely maternal, is considered by the children to be lightweight (but they do avoid upsetting her). Only the au pair, Ingrid, is held in awe because she is taciturn and uncommunicative. She has an all-seeing eye and she stays for forty years.
Such is the setting for a novel which intrigues, surprises, amuses and startles. Penelope Lively's wide and appreciative readership will be delighted with FAMILY ALBUM.
Read our interview with Penelope Lively.