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An image that alters

The Photograph: A Novel, Penelope Lively, Viking: 240 pp., $25.95

June 29, 2003|Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Penelope Lively's fiction has a retrospective cast. Although she is not a historical novelist in the mode of Mary Renault, Barry Unsworth or A.S. Byatt, she is sensitive to the allure of the past. More accurately, however, one might describe her as a historian of individual consciousness, in particular of the role played by memory in shaping it. Her characters move forward by looking backward.

Although the accomplished British writer is in her 70th year, her interest in looking backward was evident from the start of her career. Lively was already in her 40s when she made her debut as a novelist for adults. But her abiding interest in the past is also apparent in her children's fiction, the field in which she first made a name for herself.

The protagonists of Lively's novels for adults tend to be middle-aged or older people caught in the act of considering their lives thus far: the widowed heroine of "Perfect Happiness" or the dying journalist of "Moon Tiger."

More than a few of Lively's characters are professionally involved in probing the mysteries of the past, like the archeologist in "Treasures of Time," the biographer in "According to Mark" and the landscape historian Glyn Peters, whose accidental discovery of a snapshot of his late wife, Kath, is the starting point of Lively's new novel, "The Photograph."

Glyn's profession is unearthing the history concealed in landscapes: the ancient roads, paths or tracks hidden under modern causeways, the disused mines, abandoned farms, derelict fortresses and even ancient burial mounds. One day, as Glyn is searching through his accumulated jumble of papers, files, offprints, maps, bills, checkbooks and household accounts, a sudden avalanche spews forth an envelope labeled "Don't open -- destroy." Needless to say, he opens it.

Inside he finds a photograph, in which Kath is holding hands with a man whom closer inspection reveals to be Nick Hammond, her sister Elaine's husband. Any hope that Glyn may have had that this was merely an innocent gesture is quashed by the note that accompanies the photo: "I can't resist sending you this. Negative destroyed, I'm told. Blessings, my love."

Shocked and deeply shaken by the implications of his discovery, Glyn doggedly sets out to pinpoint exactly what happened, not much caring who else may be hurt. As one of the other characters feels on being told of the secret, "A stone has been cast into the reliable, immutable pond of the past, and as the ripples subside, everything appears different. The reflections are quite other; everything has swung and shattered, it is all beyond recovery. What was, is now something else."

The continuing repercussions of Glyn's discovery radiate, involving more and more people who knew -- or thought they knew -- the endearing, wistful, elusive Kath: Elaine, her tough, well-organized sister; Elaine's feckless, charming husband, Nick; Nick's former business partner, the reliable and reticent Oliver Watson; and Nick and Elaine's sprightly, hyper-efficient daughter, Polly, who adored her Aunt Kath. And, in the distant background, there's stalwart, self-reliant Mary Packard, Kath's "longtime friend, the crony, the soulmate, the abiding element amidst the ebb and flow of Kath's associates."

Lively tells Kath's story from each of these character's perspectives, a device that enables the novelist to portray them in considerable psychological depth. The shifting back and forth of viewpoint is more than just a convenient method for exploring individual psyches (or for Lively to display her literary virtuosity). It is also part and parcel of the story itself, advancing the plot by revealing the meaning (or meanings) of what happened. For the mere facts of any life, however essential as a starting point for understanding, are woefully insufficient, as Glyn soon realizes: "The facts. And Glyn is of course a facts man, par excellence. But he looks at these facts with fair contempt. They tell him little. They tell him only what he knows, and it is what he does not know that matters now." The true story, as Lively shows us, is not simply what happened but how and why it happened. It is not only what people were doing but what they thought they were doing and how they felt about it.

"The Photograph" is one of Lively's most satisfying novels: cleverly conceived, artfully constructed and executed with high intelligence and sensitivity. It is also a surprisingly suspenseful story, with developments unfolding in two directions, as Glyn and the other characters find out new things about a past they thought they knew and as their radically altered perceptions and feelings continue to sway their relationships. Lively has exceeded herself in her portrayal of these characters. Not only has she created a cast of memorably distinctive and believably complex individuals, but she has also succeeded in the subtle and difficult task of showing us how their feelings and conceptions are being transformed, both by the revelations about the past and by their ongoing, sometimes painful, encounters with each other in the present.

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