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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, July 8th, 2003


The Photograph

by Penelope Lively

A review by Elizabeth Judd

Penelope Lively is the bard of briskness, a novelist whose heroes think, act, even suffer, with no-nonsense, consummately British dispatch. When the successful landscape historian Glyn Peters, "facts man, par excellence," discovers the infidelity of his deceased wife, Kath, he plunges into an obsessive quest for answers, interviewing her former friends and acquaintances in a belated attempt to understand her. Kath's lover turns out to be the husband of her older sister, Elaine, who responds to the posthumous revelation with alacrity by dumping her philandering spouse, no questions asked. If one can get past The Photograph's soap-operatic, faintly ludicrous premise, there's fun to be had watching Glyn and Elaine's tidy assumptions be undermined by Kath -- "a mute subversive presence" they can't explain away. Like Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, Kath has become "like some mythical figure, trawled up at will to fit other people's narratives." Lively continues, "Everyone has their way with her, everyone decides what she was, how things were."

Evidently, Lively likes her fictional worlds neat. Without exception, her self-absorbed academics, demanding garden designers, and unregenerate dreamers pull their schematic weight. The characters in The Photograph are either "striving ants" or fiddling grasshoppers, with the ants (predictably) winning in the end. The competing accounts of Kath are also carefully managed to support Lively's grand philosophical architecture; each is internally consistent and separated from the previous one by a few finely calibrated degrees.

In The Photograph, as in her Booker Prize-winning tour de force Moon Tiger, Lively skillfully orchestrates her material to serve an essentially psychedelic truth: no reality exists outside a spectrum of different perspectives, all a bit askew. If Lively's kaleidoscopic technique feels familiar, her style is original -- at times manipulative but always bracingly intelligent. Rarely has a subject as elusive as life's irredeemable messiness been pursued with such unflagging rigor.

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