Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Photograph

The PhotographThe Photograph by Penelope Lively
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

She has become like some mythical figure, trawled up at will to fit other people's narratives. Everyone has their way with her, everyone decides what she was, how things were. It seems unjust that in the midst of this to-do she is denied a voice.

Oliver Watson's feelings regarding his deceased friend Kath sum up the theme of Penelope Lively's beautifully written novel, The Photograph. It is a novel about relationships - relationships between spouses, siblings, friends, and even acquaintances. It is also about the perceptions of each other that go along with those relationships. Do we ever see the complete picture of those we love, or do we only see them in snapshots, little snippets instead of the whole person?

The story opens when Glyn, a landscape historian, finds an envelope with a note in his dead wife's handwriting saying, "Do not open! Destroy." Of course, he opens it, and gets a shock that causes him to question his whole perception of Kath and their marriage. So he sets out to find out what really happened, and who she really was. But the story centers around Kath herself. We get vignettes of her from many different characters. The plot feels very small and contained, with just a handful of characters and their memories. And even though Kath is dead, you don't know what happened to her, which adds to a growing feeling that she is going to pop in at any minute (a habit of hers that everyone remembers) and explain everything. This feeling is strengthened by the memories of the living characters - instead of a simple flashback, they actually see her in their surroundings and hear her voice speaking to them, causing their memories to sort of merge with the present. It is as if she is actually there and is indeed trying to explain.

But as Glyn picks the brains of every person he can think of that Kath may have come into contact with, and as she herself inserts herself more and more into everyone's daily lives, the picture of Kath begins to expand. We start to get this sneaky suspicion that there was much more to her than those who were supposedly closest to her remember. And by the end, when most of the questions have finally been revealed, we realize along with the characters that it is the things we don't know about a person, the things that they, in retrospect, seemed to be trying to tell us, that make all the difference.

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