- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2003


By Penelope Lively

Viking, $24.95, 231 pages

Penelope Lively’s “The Photograph,” her 16th novel, opens with a startling find. Glyn, a handsome Welsh landscape historian, has just discovered a photograph of Kath, his recently deceased wife. In it, with her back turned to the camera, she is holding hands with another man. The infidelity that the photograph presumably reveals leads Glyn on a series of encounters with those who have information about the affair: Nick the interloper; Elaine, Kath’s sister who is also Nick’s wife; Oliver, the photographer; Polly, Elaine’s daughter and assorted others who have ties to the ethereal Kath.

The stage is thus set for what has become the author’s signature minuet in which a world and time are revealed psyche by psyche after individuals from differing perspectives weigh in. The author employed this technique to moving effect in her 1987 Booker prize-winning novel “Moon Tiger,” in which Claudia, a character faced with death, seeks to reconstruct her life. Voices of those from her past emerge to create a sense of myriad Claudias, while leading readers to a sorrowful story of lost love during WWII.

Although myriad Kaths emerge from this book, its achievement rests not in the ways we come to know the elfin and elusive young woman at its center, but rather it resides in the vibrant, searching, full-bodied characters who she captivated and, in some cases, abandoned. It is their stories that keep this riveting narrative afloat.

A clue as to the author’s technique comes midway through the book when Glyn spies a kestrel hanging in the wind. The bird suggests to him a memory that he recalls this way:

“The kestrel evokes Kath. He came here with her once: another kestrel performed similarly, and Kath remarked on it, ‘It stays still,’ she had said. ‘The wind is rushing past it, and it stays still. How?’ He sees today that other bird, and Kath’s hair blown across her face, and feels her hand on his arm. ‘Look!’ she is saying. ‘Look!’”

Kath “stays still” because, beyond her death, this is the way memory — as it is assembled here — operates. Glyn summons what he calls “episodic memories” of her. There is nothing chronological about when or what he remembers, just pieces here and there. For the others she will appear in much the same way.

Elaine, Nick, Oliver and Pollly, in turn, recall a playful moment shared with Kath — an outing, an argument, a discussion — as they move through their lives attempting to understand the love and landscape that she inhabited. The memories are focused and vivid, even as Kath herself remains less so. The book reads like a mystery and each character is touched and put off-balance by it. Watching the plot unfold is much like staring at the shifting parts of a kaleidoscope in which only Kath — like the kestrel — is fixed.

Glyn, as Kath’s husband and the person who finds the photograph, is the character readers meet first. His anguished ruminations set the tone of the book and propel his inquiry. “I am evidently a dupe, a cuckold. My understanding of the past has been savagely undermined … for the foreseeable future this requires all my attention.”

When Glyn starts his investigation, the first person he rushes to see and inform is Elaine, now a prosperous garden designer. Prior to the revelations of an affair her marriage to the feckless Nick was burdened by their respective approaches to work and responsibility. Elaine is a businesswoman who fastidiously stays on top of the smallest details. Nick, a dreamer, “runs for cover” whenever something practical is asked of him such as a business plan. Dreams and “schemes” to acquire easy fortunes are what keep him going.

Still the sturdy Elaine and flighty Nick have stayed married for 32 years.

Therefore it comes as more than a little bit of a shock to Elaine when Glyn calls her for a lunch date, ostensibly to fill in gaps about Kath’s life, only to have him drop a bombshell. Elaine confronts Nick about the photograph and, when he confesses to a liaison with Kath, Elaine boots him out. To Polly’s great dismay her desolate father comes to live with her in the new apartment she has acquired.

In the meantime, Glyn continues to search for as many clues as he can find about Kath and the photograph, starting with the photographer Oliver who has little information to offer. “‘Why did you photograph them?’ demands Glyn.”

“For heaven’s sake. ‘Look, I didn’t see until after I got the prints. I just snapped the whole group, standing there chatting to each other. I hadn’t noticed that Kath and Nick were —’ He shrugs.”

Oliver, like other leads Glyn will chase is wholly innocent of any wrongdoing and yet is aware of the torment Glyn has felt since the photograph’s discovery. “He is irritated and also faintly apprehensive. There is something evangelical about Glyn’s approach to this, the sinister evangelism of the obsessed.”

Without giving too much away, it turns out that yes, there was an affair between Kath and Nick, and there may have been others. But in the world of this book the revelation is only as consequential as the people touched by it imagine it to be. And because these characters are ultimately so finely drawn, the reader ends up caring about all of this as much as they do.

Of all the characters, it is surely Elaine w ho is the most compelling. Her aging, her rivalry with her dead sister, her demanding career are given thoughtful treatment here. And the juxtaposition of her rich, if sometimes unwieldy life, against the unsettlingly truncated life of her younger sister is powerful. This is a book about love, marriage, betrayal and dependency. Part love story, part detective story, it is a tale that is as smart and breezy as the writing itself. It matters little in the end, as one of Elaine’s memories of Kath reveals, that “Kath has blown in; soon she will blow away.” The lives she has touched are as immediate and endearing as she ever was or might have been.

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