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Reviews: Past Books The Photograph by Penelope Lively

A stone has been cast into the reliable, immutable pond of the past, and as the ripples subside, everything appears different. The reflections are quite other; everything has swung and shattered, it is all beyond recovery. What was, is now something else.
-W.H. Auden –

By the time British writer Penelope Lively wrote The Photograph in 2003 she already had more than a dozen works of fiction to her credit, including MoonTiger, winner of the 1987 Booker Prize. The central concern of The Photograph is the hold that the past exerts over the present. The novel begins with an amazing discovery made by a prominent landscape historian, university professor and the host of television specials named Glyn Peters. In a closet he finds an envelope belonging to his late wife, Kath, who died several years ago. Written on the envelope is a warning: “Don’t Open – Destroy.” Inside is a photo of Kath and her sister Elaine’s husband, Nick Howard, surreptitiously holding hands. Kath’s body language cannot be misinterpreted. Elaine, a successful garden designer and author of best-selling gardening books, is not in the photograph.

For Glyn the discovery of the photo becomes the defining moment in his life. There was “before the photograph,” a time of innocence and tranquility. Now it is “after the photograph,” when everything must be seen “with the cold eye of disillusion.” A man whose entire career has been based on accurately reconstructing the past now realizes that his personal history is suddenly faulty. Central characters Glyn and Elaine are quintessentially Lively characters. Both are emotionally detached professionals, highly competent at what they do but somewhat chilly and officious in their dealings with family and friends.

Elaine and Glyn were acquainted for sometime before Glyn and Kath married. And though Elaine was married to Nick when she met Glyn, she and Glyn had a brief sexual affair. Lively explains Elaine’s attraction to Glyn: not only was he an exhilarating and refreshing companion, his enthusiasm for his profession was impressively bolstered by the authority of knowledge. Glyn met Kath on one of her spur-of-the-moment visits to Elaine and Nick’s home and fell immediately in love with her. When Glyn and Kath became a couple, Elaine lost all interest in him. “It was as though his allure had withered the moment he was with Kath.”

In an outstanding early chapter of the book, Glyn shows Elaine the photograph over a pub lunch. She is, of course, shocked, but characteristically maintains her poise. Glyn tells her, “We were unaware of a significant fact, namely, that your sister – my wife – at one time had an evidently intimate relationship with your husband.”

Elaine stares at the photo, seeing a picture of “five people, grass beneath their feet, a backdrop of trees. Two members of the group, a man and a woman, have their backs to the photographer.” On closer inspection she sees those two persons have their hands “closely entwined, locked together” behind their backs. Glyn also shows her the note he found with the photo, a scrap of paper containing the message, “I can’t resist sending you this. Negative destroyed, I’m told. Blessings, my love.”

The hideous revelation that her husband of more than 30 years once carried on an affair with her much-younger only sibling, Kath, immeasurably exacerbates her ongoing marital frustrations. Elaine is a changed woman. She is angry with Kath – angry, resentful and frustrated. Elaine’s perception of the past has been questioned and “her understanding of three people has been shown to be faulty.” But at least she is filled with purpose: she will rid herself of Nick. Concerning Glyn’s attitude toward the feckless Nick, Lively points out that Glyn’s “initial urge to seek him out and punch him in the nose has given way to a kind of indifference. His business is with Kath, not Nick.”

When Elaine confronts her weak, hypocritical husband, pronouncing that she has seen the photograph and the accompanying note, he pleads with her in a torrent of fast-talk: “What we have to do is get this thing into perspective…I’m not going to defend myself or tell lies…I’m just going to be entirely honest. Yes, Kath and I once, just for a while, we…it was a flash in the pan. A silly, idiotic, passing thing…it makes absolutely no difference to us.”

Elaine did not fail to note that complacency tinged his self-deprecation. Yet a current of indecisiveness soon begins to flow into Elaine’s resolve. Will she survive without “the armor of marital solidarity” to which she has been for so long accustomed? Since Glyn’s disclosure, memories of Kath unsettle Elaine. “Sometimes she is in the wings, but ready to invade at any moment…at other times she steps center stage, aged four or 12 or in some adult incarnation.”

Through the recollections of Elaine and Glyn, Lively depicts Kath, one of her more elusive characters. Glyn’s profession has always demanded patience and tenacity, and these traits carry over in his examination of his ten-year-long marriage. He married Kath “because she was the most desirable woman he had ever met. He had to have her, he had to go on having her, he had to make sure that no one else had her, ever.” In assigning motives, Lively reveals that Kath married Glyn because she found him “charismatic and charming, and because he made it clear that he was entirely focused upon her.”

Underscoring Kath’s loveliness, Lively relates that Kath was “the entire package – not just a face, but her stance, her movements.” She possessed a guarantee of instant attention and interest. All who knew Kath were absorbed by her: “There was what she looked like and there was what she was…you couldn’t imagine Kath doing anything mean or malevolent, or despicable…Kath had gaiety and verve, but she was not especially wise, nor clever, nor well-informed.”

Indeed, Kath was something of an anti-hero: “If one is being realistic, one would have to say that her contribution to society was nil. She did nothing useful, had no sustained employment, was neither creative nor industrious. She had no children…she simply was – as a flower is, or a bird.”

Elaine remembers how Kath could trigger her proprietorial concern: “You mean you’re not working at the gallery anymore?” to which Kath nonchalantly responded, “Things weren’t going so well. And I’ve met this nice man who wants me to help with a festival he’s running.”

Contrary to all expectations, Kath died in her early forties. In one of the novel’s final chapters, Lively masterfully chronicles the gripping details of Kath’s last day. As news of her death spreads, one of her acquaintances remarks that nobody seemed less likely than Kath to be dead. Oliver, Nick’s onetime assistant, had not seen or spoken to Kath in years. When he learns that she has taken her own life, he thinks that in some inexplicable and disturbing way what had happened was heralded. There had always been something troubled about Kath, something that set her apart. “Behind and beyond her looks, her manner, there had been some dark malaise.”

In the closing pages of her novel, Lively features a character barely mentioned up until this point. She is Mary Packard, a long-time friend to Kath. She is, incidentally, one of the five people in the infamous photo. Mary is both a talented potter and an outspoken woman. The narrative unfolds to inform us that Glyn, Elaine and Oliver each make arrangements to see Mary in the aftermath of the photograph’s discovery. Had she lived, Kath may have had trouble recognizing her friend. Though still self-sufficient, Mary is now round, compact, sturdy, and her “cropped dark wiry hair is badger-gray.”

When Glyn visits Mary at her rural stone cottage he is looking for answers to his questions about Kath’s death. But instead the encounter proves to be one filled with reproach for Glyn’s failure as a husband. Unsparingly, Mary chastises him for his obsession with his career, an obsession that left no room for his wife. We learn that he did not even know that Kath had suffered a miscarriage – indeed, it had never occurred to him that she had wanted children. Clearly, Mary’s accusations carry great emotional weight for Glyn. Along with Elaine and Oliver, he recognizes that the Kath he knew was a product of his own solipsistic preoccupations. There is perhaps a kernel of affirmation in the conclusion of this sobering novel; the central characters sincerely loved Kath.

Versions of the truth illuminate Lively’s spare and nuanced prose. For example, appearances are deceiving – things are not always what they seem. Above all, accurate memories are essential to one’s knowledge of oneself. They tell us who we are and underpin our passage through life. Without them we become untethered.