The Photograph by Penelope Lively

“The light of memory, or rather the light that memory lends to things, is the palest light of all. I am not quite sure whether I am dreaming or remembering, whether I have lived my life or dreamed it. Just as dreams do, memory makes me profoundly aware of the unreality, the evanescence of the world, a fleeting image in the moving water.”
— Eugene Ionesco

Science and modern technology enable us to find the solutions to most puzzles. Few questions today are left unanswered. DNA testing allows us to trace the perpetrators of crimes that took place before many of us were born, and to pardon those falsely incriminated; doctors can indicate what we are likely to die of before we’ve really started to live.

This desire to know and to accept that knowing is the only possible way forward is the theme tackled by Penelope Lively in her latest novel, The Photograph.

When Glen, a middle-aged university professor finds an old photograph of his dead wife Kath in the back of a cupboard, he wants to know why she is holding hands with her brother-in-law Nick. Glen’s initial reaction is shock and moreover annoyance that he has, he presumes, been a dupe for the past 15 years. In his quest to first date the photograph, and then to find out the story behind it, he is forced to rediscover his in-laws and their friends. He and they must in turn rediscover themselves and their relationships with those around them. What emerges is that Kath, bubbly and beautiful as she was, has remained at the centre of many peoples’ lives. She unwittingly held the key to a series of emotional entanglements that failed to dissolve when she died.

Lively builds up this web of relations by introducing one character at a time and weaving his/her story with that of another character, before moving on to somebody else, and another thread of the web. All the characters, from Elaine, Kath’s sensible, ambitious elder sister, to Oliver, the friend, who took the infamous photo, think they knew Kath. But, in fact, each is revealed to have known a version of Kath, which was never the real thing. As she had neither children nor a career, Kath’s friends and lovers decided for themselves who she was. Myths were easy to perpetuate because she was dead and only lived on in the memories of those who knew her.

The question of who somebody really is and whether there is such a thing as an individual, or whether the individual is a collection of projected images, is also posed, to a lesser extent, about the other characters.

Glen does not want to know anything about his new partner Myra’s past, and refuses to share details of his life with Kath. Likewise, Oliver and his girlfriend Sandra have come to a tacit understanding not to question each other about their former lovers. When Oliver is visited by Glen, and subsequently by various ghosts of his past, Sandra asks what really happened between Kath and Nick. Oliver muses over telling her, before concluding that: “Bald facts are a travesty, a distortion…Without the ballast of personalities, of how things were back then, such an account is threadbare, it invites a knee-jerk reaction.” Because Sandra was not part of the group, Oliver correctly presumes she would draw certain conclusions about the events; conclusions based on a moral “normality”.

Glen’s quest leads him to find out facts about Kath that he never knew, but the Kath he knew, the woman he married, has therefore disappeared.

Juxtaposed with the confused relations of un temps perdu is the love life of Polly, the 30-year-old daughter of Nick and Elaine. She is part of the young, modern world and her new boyfriend wins points with her because he listens to her problems. Listening to and talking about people and relationships is something her father never seems to have done with her mother. However, Polly, too, is a hybrid of identities.

What Lively shows, in this, her fifteenth novel, is that memories and photographs are personal and unique. The photograph that Glen finds meant different things to different people depending on the knowledge they had at the time of the event and how they feel in the present. Likewise, a single person is remembered in a multitude of ways by a multitude of people. By digging into the past, this memory will doubtless be altered.

Glen has to live with the consequences of his actions. Sometimes, like learning you are at a high risk of contracting cancer, it is perhaps better not to know.