Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The road to Lichfield

The Road to Lichfield, Penelope Lively

I have loved Penelope Lively's books ever since I first read City of the Mind, more than 20 years ago now.  It is still my favorite book about London.  Over the years I've managed to collect most of her other novels, as well as her two autobiographical works, but The Road to Lichfield lingered on the TBR pile.

I would never have guessed that this was her first published novel.  It is written with the confidence and balance of her later books, though it is lighter than some like The Photograph.  I generally find Lively a grave writer, not sombre, with touches of humor and lightness but not comedy.  I also find in her sometimes a distance, a detachment from her characters, which reminds me of P.D. James and Ruth Rendell, both friends of hers I believe.  Like them she is also very interested in the psychology of her characters, and she is an astute observer.

The Road to Lichfield opens with Anne Linton driving from her home in Cuxing, Berkshire, to Lichfield in Staffordshire, where her father has placed himself in a nursing home.  On her arrival, she is startled by his decline, and the realization that he will not recover.  She meets a neighbor, a fishing companion of her father's named David Fielding, to whom she is immediately drawn.  In the process of sorting out her father's things, she learns a secret about her father, one her brother Graham has known but never shared.  Anne returns home to her husband and two children, and to a neighbor who involves her in a campaign to save a 15th-century cottage, threatened with demolition.  For much of the book, Anne divides her time between Cuxing and Lichfield, though in Lichfield she is taken up more with David Fielding than with her father.

One of Lively's great strengths, to my mind, is her characters.  She has the gift of creating people, complex, flawed, fully human, about whom we come to care (and in some cases, like Anne's husband Don, to dislike).  She manages shifting points of view that reveal facts, emotions, personalities, to the reader, which may be hidden from other characters. For much of the book Anne's father James is silent, lost in delusions or dreams, but Lively gives us his thoughts, his perceptions, in beautifully-written sections, keeping him very much part of the story.

In almost all of Lively's books one of the characters is working in history, as a teacher, a researcher, a writer, reflecting her own background. In this book, Anne teaches history at a local high school, though she loses her job when a new headmaster decides that history, especially narrative history, is irrelevant to teenagers.  This allows Lively to explore, through the different characters, idea that frequently come up in her books: the role of history, why is it important, how we learn and teach history, how humanity has shaped and been shaped by the land.  The preservation campaign brings another angle to this exploration, with debates over what is worth preserving.

There are elements of detective fiction in some of Lively's books, like The Photograph, which revolves around a man's investigation of a photo showing his now-deceased wife with another man. Generally, though, her books are not action- or plot-driven.  In The Road to Lichfield, however, there is a loose end left hanging nearly til the end, when it suddenly becomes a trip wire, one that caught me completely by surprise.  Just as Anne's discovery of the family secret means that she sees her parents and their family life through different eyes, so this little bombshell changes much of what has gone on before.  It completely changes the ending of the story, and leaves me unsure what will happen next to these people.  As so often with characters to whom I have become attached, I wish there were a sequel.

Penelope Lively has a new book coming out in the fall, and I can't wait to see what she gives us next.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!