Penelope Lively's 'THE PHOTOGRAPH': A Review. Effect of a forgotten photo disrupting people's lives.
An Opening Sentence to Grab You
‘Kath steps from the landing cupboard, where she should not be.’
‘The Photograph’, published in 2003, begins with this intriguing sentence. How often have you read advice to writers, ‘Grab your audience in the first sentence and you’ve got them hooked’? This sentence hooked me.
Who is Kath? What’s she doing in the cupboard? Why shouldn’t she be there? All these questions are answered as one progresses through the story.
Glyn, a landscape historian, is rummaging through the landing cupboard, trying to find some information ‘filed’ there years ago.
He comes across some photos of his late wife, Kath, along with a sealed envelope marked ‘Destroy’. Of course, he doesn’t destroy it; would you?! In fact he opens it and along with it opens a can of worms.
It contains a photograph. The author conveys well the sense of being suspended in time when Glyn discovers, in the photograph, a betrayal which knocks the breath out of him:
‘The disease now has him by the throat. The throat, the gut, the balls. What he feels is... well, what he experiences is the most appalling stomach-churning, head-spinning cauldron of emotion.’
Apart from showing how memory can be distorted, can be different depending on the viewpoint and can leap into our minds when least expected, this story deals with how the memory of Kath doesn’t actually reflect her real personality. Those who think they knew her discover a different Kath.
He considers several paths of action but there is rarely any thought that he should not act, should not talk about his find with the others involved. He can’t ignore the evidence: ‘That photograph smoulders in its envelope, and in his head.’
Glyn, now obsessed, has to follow up what he sees and so begins a journey which challenges his memory, bringing up much of the past for him and for many others.
Glyn & Kath
Glyn is self-centred and obsessional; his need to know is overpowering. He doesn’t care if he destroys others in the process.
Kath, though dead, is a central character in the story. She fascinated everyone, they all thought she was beautiful, happy, had the best possible life. Maybe she wanted to stir the waters and knew that Glyn would open the envelope. Did she want them all to understand her better, to realise what she was really like?
His mission destroys, or at least changes, other people’s relationships. However, it does make them all think about their former lives and how they might deal with the future.
Nick & Elaine
Nick, Glyn’s brother-in-law, thinks life is fine and all things will be resolved in the end, by someone else. He’s oblivious of what others feel, as opposed to Glyn who does realise what others could feel but goes ahead regardless.
Nick is portrayed as a big, blundering puppy who doesn't want to face 'real life' and the consequences of his actions, in effect he hasn't grown up and needs his wife to run his life.
Elaine, Nick’s wife, is outwardly bossy, hard and good at organising. She runs her own gardening business. She has to think carefully about her life and the way she’s treated people. I like Elaine; she stands no nonsense but has a soft centre.
There is one character who is always there in the background, mentioned by several of the others. She’s Mary Packard and we’re left wondering where she fits in, what she knows; finally, we find out and Glyn finds out a lot more about his late wife, Kath.
Adult Fiction Titles by Penelope Lively
The Road to Lichfield (1977)
Nothing Missing but the Samovar, and other stories (1978)
Treasures of Time (1979)
Judgment Day (1980)
Next to Nature, Art (1982)
Perfect Happiness (1983)
Corruption, and other stories (1984)
According to Mark (1984)
Pack of Cards, Stories (1978-86)
Moon Tiger (1987)
Passing On (1989)
City of the Mind (1991)
Cleopatra's Sister (1993)
Heat Wave (1996)
The Photograph (2003)
Making it Up (2005)
Family Album (2009)
How It All Began (2011)
Memories are Made of This
The theme of Memory is strong throughout. We see that
- memories can be totally unreliable,
- people are kept alive by others' memories,
- different people have different memories, sometimes conflicting depending on their relationship or situation,
- memories, one's own or someone else's, trigger other memories,
- memories can also be 'acquired' through someone else reporting an event over and over 'til you adopt it as your own,
- the photograph shows something that Glyn doesn't remember because he wasn't there but others remember the event though didn't see the details at the time (even Oliver who took the photo),
- memories can suddenly invade the mind, triggered by something seemingly random,
- memories make you think, re-evaluate
Questions & Thoughts
Questions are asked. Who’s to blame? What should they have done?
The story also acts as a warning. When you push for information, search for the truth, you can find out more than you're prepared for, you can stir up a hornets' nest. It shows us that we might not know or understand people as well as we think. Glyn was too absorbed in 'self'. In the end, was his journey worthwhile?
Imagery, Emotions & My Own Thoughts
I enjoyed the read tremendously. I like the easy style. The imagery is refreshing, such as when Glyn is looking out onto the garden, ‘a squirrel pours down the trunk of the cherry tree in one fluid movement.’ What a great choice of words!
Everyday emotions, reactions and events are portrayed with accuracy. We can identify with these characters, or at least recognise each one.
We get an overview of Kath from each character’s viewpoint and varying memories.
‘The Photograph’ poses so many questions. It explores jealousy, obsession, responsibility, loyalty and how we judge others on a superficial level. It asks us if our memories are accurate, subjective or objective and what influences them.
It shows how important it is to value others, to talk, ask questions, above all to listen; to consider others’ feelings and reactions.
I recommend this novel. The characters are alive, the dilemma real and the different threads of memory are fascinating. I hope you enjoy it!
Notes on the Author, Penelope Lively
Dame Penelope Margaret Lively, DBE, FRSL, was born on 17th March 1933.
She is a prolific author of fiction for children and adults, as well as non-fiction.
She won the Booker Prize for British novels in 1987, for 'Moon Tiger' (adult fiction) and the Carnegie Medal for British children's books in 1973, for 'The Ghost of Thomas Kempe' (children's fiction).
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