Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Family Album by Penelope Lively

All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.  So said Tolstoy.  In Penelope Lively’s novel, Family Album, one of the characters asserts that all families are screwed up, more or less.   The question is whether the family in this novel is more screwed up or less screwed up than average.

Over the years I’ve read many novels written in the “memoir” style in which an adult character looks back on a childhood that looks perfectly normal from the outside but which was horrible in some child abusive way.   When I first began reading Family Album I thought that it might be one of those novels.  I was mistaken, although I believe that Lively intended for me to be mistaken.  

I believe Lively intended the reader to be taken down the path of murky memories expecting to find something terrible at the end, only to find themselves confronted with nothing terrifying and, mostly (but not wholly), normal.  How did Gina get the knocked out at her eighth birthday party?  What did take place in the cellar?   Why does Ingrid still live with the family?   It’s all presented as a bit of a mystery but in the end none of it is very mysterious.  Well, the bit about Ingrid does turn out to be odd and is the taboo subject of the family.  But we find out about Gina’s party and the cellar in due course and find nothing odd there.  At least, I didn’t.   

The novel is the story of a family.  I don’t believe we are ever told the last name of the family but there is Charles the father, and Alison, the a mother and six children: Paul, Gina, Sandra, Katie, Roger and Clare.  And Ingrid, an au pere, who lives with them.  

When the story opens the children are grown and Gina, in her late thirties,  is bringing her boyfriend home to meet her parents.  They still live at Allersmead, a big old Edwardian house, as does Gina’s brother Paul, who can’t seem to get his life together.   Ingrid also still lives there with them, strange though that sounds.   The rest of the children are grown and scattered around the world. 

I expected that the story would be centered around Gina and Philip’s visit and involve many flashbacks as Gina slowly told Philip the story of her life.   That was my first mistaken assumption.  The visit is just a weekend visit and the story moves on.  Philip is intrigued by Gina’s family because he grew up in a small family so he asks many questions.  Gina’s answers seem evasive but it isn’t clear why she should be evasive and, eventually, she does answer him.   Since the reader is let into Gina’s actual memories we can confirm that, usually, there is nothing “there” there.  There is no real reason for her to be evasive.  Then Lively starts to bring in the other siblings and let us in on their memories.

Lively is writing a novel that is partly about how people’s memories work and partly about how siblings communicate and learn things within a family.  What family members think is important to talk about or focus on and what gets past them.  And how it finally becomes too late to easily bring up a subject because it has always been that way and has always been accepted as normal.  It is also an exploration about what it does and doesn’t mean to be a family. 

Lively expertly switches time and perspective throughout the novel showing us life at Allersmead through the eyes of everyone except, perhaps, much from the perspective of Charles.  At one point Katie, who lives with her husband in the States, is visiting her brother Roger, a pediatrician in Canada.  They are  reminiscing about a family holiday in Cornwall when they were children. 

They contemplate an August that is dead and gone, but not so at all, shimmering in their heads, and presumably other heads, an assemblage of fragments, of sea and rock and sand and faces and voices, things said and done, things seen and thought.

What they realize is that each remembers the same period differently.  Neither is right nor wrong, they just each remember the period differently.  Katie remembers it as “one commotion after another” but Roger remembers it as “an amazing summer” when his scientific nature was allowed to bloom.

He says:

That’s my point, you see.  Your Cornwall evidently was not my Cornwall.  Nor I suppose was anyone else’s.  Mum’s.  His.

This seems right to me.  My sister AB and I often joke with our younger sister CB that she grew up in a different family.  That’s because she remembers things we don’t and doesn’t remember things we do.  This seems natural since there is seven years difference between us.  My mother’s youngest sister regularly doesn’t remember things that her older sisters remember.   We all laugh when, in the middle of some story my mother is telling, my aunt says “Well I don’t remember that.  Not at all.”

In the novel Philip thinks that Gina is intentionally not remembering important things.  Gina confesses that she doesn’t often remember when she found out about big things because it wasn’t as if her parents sat the children down and told them big things.  The children just figured these things out over time.  And that seems right to me too. 

Philip wants to know about life at Allersmead because it must have been so different from his own childhood, just as Roger’s Chinese-Canadian fiance Susan is fascinated by what he can tell her about his childhood.  Roger finds it astounding that Susan would find his childhood exotic.  Gina, who travels often to war torn zones in which many children are displaced, realizes that children simply accept their situation as normal because that’s all they know.   They can’t dredge up details because days run together as “normal” days.

Gina thinks of childhood at Allersmead.  Sheltered, privileged.  But sharing that universal attribute of childhood:  the Allersmead world being the only one they knew, they could not conceive of an existence that was otherwise.  Until, of course, they grew up a bit and looked around and saw that families come in other sizes and shapes, that not all homes have a cellar and a kitchen table that seats twelve, that other parents are different but still recognizable as parents.

Evidently, a family with six children in the 1970’s was an aberration in Britain unless you were Catholic (which this family wasn’t).   Gina and to a lesser extent the other siblings seem to think the mere fact of their size was an oddity.  It was hard for me to relate to that because I grew up with so many friends who came from large families, families with 8, 9 or 14 kids.  Of course they were Catholic in a fairly Catholic city so no one really noticed. By the seventies there were fewer big families, but six kids was certainly not an aberration.  Today it is cause for comment but still not unknown.  

It was also hard for me to figure out exactly why Gina, especially, seemed to think that their childhood was aberrational, at least in terms of their daily lives.  But the fact that I couldn’t completely understand why she felt that way didn’t make me not understand that she felt that way.    

I do think Lively was trying to show that children remember things but not necessarily the way they really were because children simply didn’t have all the information necessary to put life into perspective at the time.   By foreshadowing things in a suspicious way and then having them turn out to be not so suspicious Lively is able to make it all the more believable that for years none of the children thought the taboo subject was odd.   

For instance, in the first chapter Lively insinuates that something bad may have happened in the cellar.   After that there are little references to the cellar but, after a few chapters, she has one of the characters remember what happened in the cellar.  It turns out that the children played down there and creating imaginary adventures, including enacting James Bond plots and playing house.  They also had a game of forfeits in which one sibling would order another to do something or suffer the forfeit.  Like, eat a spider. 

Being siblings, they could create imaginary worlds without needing a lot of communication – which put any non-family playmate at a disadvantage.   And the type of house they played certainly was a result (if not a reflection) of their upbringing.  Gina especially seems to think that all this playing was enjoyable but perhaps a little odd. 

Maybe there were psychological conclusions that could be drawn by how the children structured their games (certainly Gina and Paul, who always played the parents seemed to later think it reflected their views of parenting) but none of it seemed particularly outside the norm to me.

In fact it brought back a lot of memories.  I was only one of three children but I had a lot of cousins.  My dad’s family lived very close to us when I was growing up.  One of my dad’s brothers, who had three boys,  lived three houses away from us.  We all went to the same grade school.  Because we had the same last name and lived on the same street teachers (and some students) regularly thought we were siblings.    Three other cousins close to us in age also lived close by and went to the same school until I was about 8 years old.   Then another uncle who had 9 kids moved in right across the street from the school yard.   So I always had family around me.  And we played differently with them than with non-family friends.  When one of my cousins from up the street would come over to play he and I and my sister AB regularly played make believe games combining family events with television program plots.   Especially Bewitched, for some reason.  We didn’t regularly do that with non-family friends partly because it was harder because they just weren’t on the same wave length with us.

My little sister CB was relegated to supernumerary in these shows, being too young (as Clare is in this novel).   But later she would spend lots of time playing at another aunt’s house with two girl cousins.  Years later the three of them admitted that they always played house and in their story the parents were always dead and the oldest “sister” had to go out to work to support the younger two.   She did this by getting on her mother’s exercycle and cycling away to “work”.   Nobody thought that was weird.  Maybe a little too much reading of The Boxcar Children, but not weird.  Nobody thought that they “felt” orphaned in their families.

And both of my sisters, AB and CB, spent hours in my parents’ basement playing with the Fischer Price Little People, setting up towns and making up stories.   Sometimes (very rarely) I’d go down for a while.  But I certainly wasn’t the sister who would suddenly decide to RUN upstairs as fast as she could and lock her little sister in the basement laughing at the sound of crying coming from the other side of the door.   ( In fact sometimes I was the nice sister and opened the door, a fact which seems to be forgotten by both sisters.  Although admittedly it was usually because the crying was interfering with my piano playing or reading and not because I felt sorry for her.)

Basements and cellars are great places to play because they are away from prying parent eyes.  And kids aren’t always nice to their siblings.  But there is nothing nefarious about it.

So none of the play acting in the cellar struck me as odd. But I did understand how, by it’s nature, this play was exclusive to the siblings and excluded the rest of the world.

Yes, the taboo subject was a bit odd, but not in a way that physically harmed any of the children.   And the reader is let in on the secret at least half way through the novel so it isn’t a surprise to be sprung on us at the end.  What we want to know is how the siblings figured it out, what conversations between parents they overheard, when (if ever) they started feeling out other siblings about it, when did they just drop it and figure no one was ever going to mention it out loud?

And the underlying reason why none of the siblings felt they could talk about it was partly at least so that one particular sibling would not be singled out and feel hurt.  Lively never says this but it is clear.   It is only when that particular sibling decides to admit to having long time knowledge of the secret that the other siblings (with relief) can talk about it.  

In the end I didn’t think, on average, that this family seemed any more screwed up than any other family.  And I’m pretty sure that was the point.

I enjoyed this novel.  It is short (less than 250 pages) and a quick read, but it leaves a lot to think about.