About a year ago, I read Penelope Lively’s Booker Prize winning novel Moon Tiger and thought it was excellent. So when someone at work was offloading their copy of The Photograph recently,  I jumped at the chance to take it off their hands.

At the beginning of the novel, Glyn, a middle-aged landscape historian, is rummaging through an overcrowded cupboard, trying to locate a paper he needs, when he stumbles across a sealed envelope with the words DON’T OPEN – DESTROY scrawled across it in his late wife’s handwriting. Ignoring the instruction, Glyn tears open the envelope and finds a photograph inside showing his wife, Kath, holding hands with another man.

The Photograph by Penelope Lively

Glyn is shocked. He is angry. He is incredulous. Suddenly, all that he thought he knew about Kath and about their ten years of married life together is brought into question.

My  understanding of the past has been savagely undermined.

How? When? Why? These questions and many others haunt Glyn, and he starts a desperate search to find the truth. This leads to Glyn questioning others who were close to Kath, and so soon her sister, her brother-in-law, his business partner, and her niece all know about the photograph and the affair it has uncovered.

One old photo somehow changes everything for everyone.

The rest of the novel then skillfully explores how memories can flutter and weave, and how past events can take on entirely new meanings. Penelope Lively poses some challenging questions for us here: Could a person we always assumed we knew so well, actually turn out to be someone very different? Are our conceptions of another actually heavily influenced by who we are? Did we, in fact, really ever know the other person at all?

The narrative is told from different character’s perspectives, but is really all about Kath; who she was and what she was like. As the reader, this makes for an interesting journey, as you feel you know so much about this beautiful, charming, free spirit, yet everything – absolutely everything – which you know about Kath, comes to you second-hand, from one of the other character’s memories.

Kath, then, remains a ghost-like figure in the novel; always lurking somewhere nearby, but somehow always slightly out of reach and out of focus. Her presence is felt, but she has no voice.

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.

An intriguing novel certainly. And if you like this, you will very likely enjoy Moon Tiger.

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