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‘All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.’ Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina could have been an opening for this month’s book Family Album by Penelope Lively. Allersmead, at the heart of the novel has been home to Alison, an aggressively home-loving mother, Charles an emotionally absent father, the enigmatic au pair and six children. As the children, now adult, return home for visits, the history of their childhood lives is uncovered. There is no linear progression of plot but the novel shifts between memories, snapshots of incidents and current dialogue. Underpinning everything is the mythology of the happy family with its traditions and rituals. It may be amusingly chaotic at times but this is all, according to the myth, part and parcel of family life.
However shadows soon begin to slide beneath the surface and as the novel proceeds layers of secrecy are peeled away. Sibling rivalries and resentments emerge which mean that family ties are not maintained with enthusiasm in adulthood. The favourite son does not live up to the expectations of his mother. Most poignant of all it turns out that Alison is not the birth mother of one of the children and the self-effacing au pair has a potentially family shattering secret. Clearly there are problems at the core of this household which could be summed up as a lack of genuine affection.
For a much acclaimed novelist who has won the Booker prize for a previous work, we found this book disappointing in some ways. The characters tend to be stereotypical. Perhaps Lively wanted to draw them lightly because they didn’t know one another very well. They have familiarity but no warmth. The family of which Alison imagines herself to be the centre exists only as an ideal, she is the focal point but the family is not an ideal one. When problems arise she pushes them aside and papers over the cracks rather than addressing them. Is this just a reaction to her cold and selfish husband? Perhaps, but he too is being sidelined by her narrow and blinkered view of ‘family life’. Indicative of the self-delusion going on is the fact Charles is writing a book on growing up in other cultures when he himself has no understanding of his own adolescent children and no empathy with them. Throughout the book there are sinister references to dark doings but the secrets revealed are, bar one, minor incidents of childhood and the end is an anti-climax. Perhaps – we thought – that is the message of the book, that these are ordinary people coping with ordinary life.
Having said this, the novel did stimulate a very lively discussion and many of us enjoyed the book for the way it resonated with events from our own backgrounds.
Next month we meet on 8th December to discuss Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never let Me Go.
Withiel Book Circle – reading list
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