Look out for Penelope Lively’s new book, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.
Man Booker Prize–winning novelist Penelope Lively’s latest masterpiece opens with a snapshot: Kath, before her death, at an unknown gathering, holding hands with a man who is not her husband. The photograph is in an envelope marked “DON’T OPEN—DESTROY.” But Kath’s husband does not heed the warning, embarking on a journey of discovery that reveals a tight web of secrets—within marriages, between sisters, and at the heart of an affair. Kath, with her mesmerizing looks and casual ways, moves like a ghost through the memories of everyone who knew her—and a portrait emerges of a woman whose life cannot be understood without plumbing the emotional depths of the people she touched.
Propelled by the author’s signature mastery of narrative and psychology, The Photograph is Lively at her very best, the dazzling climax to all she has written before.
Lively likes historians. Her most famous novel on this side of the Atlantic, the Booker Prize winning Moon Tiger, told the story of a popular historian; her latest narrates the quest of a "landscape historian" in search of what Proust called "lost time": the living past of his dead wife. Glyn Peters, a famous British archeologist, discovers a compromising photograph of his wife, Katherine Targett, sealed in an envelope in a closet at home. Peters specializes in excavating the long defunct gardens, buried fields and covered-over roads of the British landscape. Reverting to professional habits, he treats Kath's infidelity as a sort of archeological dig. The photo depicts Kath and Nick Hammond, the husband of Kath's sister, Elaine, surreptitiously holding hands on some outing, with Elaine and Mary Packard, Kath's best friend, in the background. Glyn decides to interview this cloud of witnesses, beginning with Elaine. Elaine is a successful, and somewhat cold, landscaper; Nick, her polar opposite, is a man one degree away from being a Wodehouse dilettante. Lively, who is never shy of letting us know her opinion of her characters (like Trollope), makes her disapprobation of Nick plain. Elaine, after learning of the affair, kicks Nick out. He takes refuge with Polly, their daughter, in London, and goes rapidly downhill. Glyn, meanwhile, has searched out Nick's ex-business partner, Oliver Watson, who took the photograph, and Mary Packard. Lively is always a discerning, keenly intelligent writer. This, for instance, is how she describes, in three irrevocable words, Elaine's pregnancy: "She is pregnant: heavy, hampered, irritable." Unfortunately, Kath, a demon-haunted beauty with little depth, remains unconjurable. Her insubstantiality and the much-foreshadowed nature of her death, not revealed until late in the novel, drains this story of its full emotional impact. 5-city pre-pub tour.
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One of my first selections for a book club. It was an amazing read and sparked some lively conversation. A must read!