Review

The Photograph

by Penelope Lively

Kath ... died.

Glyn and Kath had quietly grown apart over the years of their marriage. A photograph found among Glyn's papers, in an envelope provocatively marked "Don't Open - Destroy", shows him just how far apart they had, in reality, grown. For a time, he sits immobilized, taking in myriad possible implications. In an effort to understand and share this hurtful knowledge, he reveals his discovery to sister-in-law Elaine.

Oldest of the two sisters, Elaine is a selfish and humorless contrast to Kath. A landscape consultant, she no longer sees any charm in Nick, her husband of too many years. He is the epitome of a free spirit, entertaining grand ideas that he cannot bring to fruition. Nick dances through life, letting his imagination lead him, to Elaine's utter frustration. She, on the other hand, takes a businesslike approach to everyday existence, driven by her success and irritated by Nick's lack of it. Now in her prime, looking back, she makes excuses as to why she made the choices she did, excuses that come across as exceedingly lame. Kath, six years her junior, was underfoot during their growing-up years, an annoyance, like a gnat flying around one's ears. Elaine found her bothersome despite her startling beauty, or maybe because of it. Elaine always had a plan, a blueprint if you will, with a severe order to it, and Kath's spontaneity grated on her nerves. And Kath, in adulthood, remained irksome to her big sister.

Widower Glyn meets with Elaine to try to sort through the tatters left by Kath's death --- and Glyn's disturbing discovery --- remembering with a touch of guilt a time when they entertained fantasies of each other. They deal with the news in their personal, and opposite, manners --- Elaine, swift and without brooding; Glyn, drawing it out and obsessing. Then there's Nick, indulging in some deep soul- searching, and Kath's niece, Polly, viewing her aunt from a surprising new angle. One small revelation builds upon another until each individual in Kath's life reassesses the person they thought she was. Kath takes shape through the others' memories, but the picture of her never quite focuses. She remains just beyond one's grasp, leaving an impression of herself without satisfying substance.

While involved in their story, an introspective look can hardly be avoided. And that's one of the best things about this book: finding snatches of one's own personality among Lively's characters. It is also one of the most disturbing. Self-examination is quite literally unavoidable, and the results, for me at least, are eye opening.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 22, 2011

The Photograph
by Penelope Lively

  • Publication Date: May 25, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics)
  • ISBN-10: 0142004421
  • ISBN-13: 9780142004425