Penelope Lively’s latest novel, “Family Album,” opens with a picture of a spacious Edwardian house called Allersmead. Gina is arriving to introduce her boyfriend, Philip, to her parents, so we see it from his point of view. He’s impressed: with the steps sweeping up from gravel path to front door, with the welcoming mother “arms raised in rather theatrical greeting”; the vague father “wearing the kind of tweed jacket that you thought laid to rest in the 1970s”; the dog who “shambled at his heels and slumped down on the top step.”
Everything suggests substance and charm — yet also something out of sync with modern life. And there’s more of it inside; with orange and lemon cake for tea, a shabby but comfortable bedroom with old-fashioned furniture, a bacon-and-breakfast, and walls festooned with pictures of Gina and her five siblings. Gina’s mother, Alison, explains to Philip “I only ever wanted children, and what’s wrong with that? say I. … Such a wonderful base for them this was — a real old-fashioned family.” Philip is amazed and fascinated.
It’s all a lot less entrancing to Gina, who is reluctant to talk details of her childhood, and only half-heartedly shows Philip around the gardens. She hasn’t visited her parents for a year, and four of her siblings now live abroad; only Paul, the ne’er-do-well, continues to flit in and out of the family nest. Alison witters indulgently about him; Charles, his father, is more sardonic. He doesn’t, it seems, subscribe entirely to his wife’s theory of the joys of family life. As the novel moves backward in time to show his children growing up, it’s clear he closeted himself away with the books he writes, leaving Alison and the au pair, Ingrid, to deal with the children and the house. His sister Corinna can’t think why he married Alison. Intellectually, Corinna disapproves of her because she is “a throwback … entirely dependent on her husband.” More significantly, her antipathy is visceral, “It’s to do with that inexhaustible smile, and the way she pats your arm, and her general shapelessness, and the fact that she’s barely read a book in her life, and that slight stammer, and her majestic complacency.”
Alison’s complacency is that of the dictator. As “Family Album” unfolds, we see how she browbeats her family into playing supporting roles so she can star as Wonderful Mother in her nostalgic drama of Happy Family Life. We see them drag themselves to celebrations she has decreed, toiling up inhospitable cliffs with picnics, vacationing in Cornish cottages that are supposed to foster togetherness but actually really cramp everyone’s style. Her demands are faintly threatening because she is so hard to resist and so rarely out of view. And since Ms. Lively does not take us inside her mind, she is inscrutable, too. So is Ingrid. She arrived as an au pair when the children were little, and has never left even though they are all in their thirties. Having taking over the garden as her realm, Ingrid is clearly more than a servant. But with Alison as the queen bee of the household, does that mean that Ingrid is a kind of lady in waiting — or perhaps the eminence grise behind the throne? By writing from the points of view of Gina and her siblings, Ms. Lively puts her readers in the position of children who are familiar with the adults of their world but never a hundred percent sure of their motivations — hence the wisps of emotional threat that constantly rise from her pages.
This is not the only whiff of menace that wafts through Allersmead. The children sometimes fly under Alison’s radar. Paul gets into constant trouble with teachers and even the police. Gina carries the scar of a childhood head injury: All the children remember disappearing into the cellar of the house to play games whose goal is to exact forfeits and penalties. Gina remembers Paul demanding, “Eat a spider.” Despite Alison’s propaganda about the wonders of family life at Allersmead, things are far from well.
As the children grow up, each takes something different from their experience under Alison’s rule. As Roger, now a doctor in Toronto points out, that frightful Cornish holiday that drove Paul to drugs and Gina and her sister Sandra to teenage despair was wonderful for him. He discovered the alluring life of Cornwall’s rock pools, which kick-started the fascination with biology that led to a medical career. The other children’s careers can also be seen emerging during their Allersmead years. Gina’s readiness to fight back developed the political consciousness that has made her a TV reporter; Sandra’s concern with appearance takes her into the world of fashion.
When Charles dies there’s a copy of Nabokov’s “Speak Memory” on his desk, a reminder that Penelope Lively has always shared Nabokov’s fascination with the way the passage of time strands us with our memories. In “Family Album,” as in her earlier novels, she suggests that each of us as an island, embedded in an archipelago of family or community, but sole keepers of the memories that make us irreducibly ourselves. Because its focus is so sharp, “Family Album” is compellingly readable, and often funny — the work of a novelist whose literary talents are of the highest order.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.