Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Camera Never Lies

A picture is worth a thousand words -- unless the picture in question is the subject of Penelope Lively's The Photograph. The picture in that case is worth a sea of complexities and emotional mayhem, making it a marvelous read for lovers of domestic fiction.

While rummaging through a pile of papers, Glyn discovers a snapshot of Kath, his recently deceased wife. It's one he's never seen before. Unaware that she was being photographed, Kath is holding hands and exchanging an intimate look with a man who, Glyn realizes with dismay, is clearly her lover. Glyn never suspected--how could he have been so blind? But now his eyes are open and he wants explanations--about his wife, her lover, the fallibility of memory and the uncertainty of the present, all prompted by his discovery.

In life Kath was strikingly attractive and maddeningly elusive. In death she's a ghostly presence, confounding Glyn and hovering just out of reach of the reader. Her story is told by means of a rotation of chapters among
the characters whose lives she touched and who all  had different ways of knowing her (or, as is more often the case, not knowing her) including Kath's successful businesswoman sister, her sister's wastrel husband, an adoring niece, a host of acquaintances and business associates, and Glyn himself. The unexpected discovery of the photograph impacts all of the characters, but none so profoundly as Glyn, who is driven to resolve the many questions it raises. His relentless pursuit of answers, and indeed, of the essence of Kath, propels the narrative: in death Kath absorbs him in a way she could not do in life.

Dame Penelope Lively (she became Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to literature in the 2012 New Year Honours) is well-known for her literary explorations of the often-unanticipated effects of the past upon the present, and The Photograph is Lively at the top of her game. It will keep you turning pages.


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