Why is this out of print? It is far too good to be condemned to the secondhand market. When you think of the aisles of rubbish disgracing the shelves of Smiths it is bewildering.
Back to the book. As I said a few days ago I had not read any of Penelope Lively's fiction for adults, and I was a little wary that it might turn out to be an Anita Brookner experience. Don't get me wrong, Anita Brookner is a lovely writer whose prose is consistently beautiful; the trouble is I find it like a mental alabaster sculpture, cool and elegant, and lacking resistance so my mind slips right off it and onto the patch of damp on the sitting room wall, the one that was fixed last year but still has bare plaster showing it is time to decorate and whether I should stick with this green or go for something more neutral in case we want to put the house on the market, and ...where was I? Oh yes, Anita Brookner, elegant but I just can't keep her in focus. I want a bit of friction from a text; some collision between writer and reader where I can get to the hub of things. Fortunately, Lively, though perfectly elegant, is also very textured.
Stella Brentwood is 65 and retiring after a lifetime of anthropological field work. Never married, and with no siblings, she has no roots and a determined emotional self-sufficiency. She chooses the West Country for her first ever home purchase, her first ever attempt at permanence, simply because the widower of her best friend sends her a Christmas card with a Somerset postmark and it reminds her of a trip she made with a former lover, who like all Stella's loves, drifted off. So we see Stella settling in, not to just to a new home in the ordinary way of things, but settling in to actually having a home, to being an owner occupier, a neighbour, a villager. Stella's own views on the matter are vigorous and clear with all the detachment of her former trade of people watching. This is her trouble, her professional detachment from any society. Can Stella relax, stop working, and fit in?
And now she felt no proprietorial surge, no glow of ownership. She would have to get more furniture, to build bookshelves. Of more immediate importance, she needed to discover this place, to do the sort of things she had always done in new surroundings. Move about, observe, listen. Without notebook or tape recorder but simply for her own interest, because she could no longer imagine any other way of living. The world is out there, richly stocked and inviting observation.
Against the internal psychological portrait of Stella are set a varied cast of characters. Some, like Richard (Nadine's widower), Stella's archaeologist friend Judith, and Molly in the local shop are brought to life through observed interaction. Others, like Stella's ex-lovers and her now dead friend Nadine are portrayed through reminiscences. For these characters memory is always there as a filter or a veil between the reader and their presence. Indeed even for Stella's contemporaries her memories are blocked by their present selves and when present selves discuss the past there is more than one version:
It is moth-eaten, this fabric of the past. But Stella's moth holes do not coincide with Judith's moth holes it would seem. Of course not. Unreliable witnesses, all of us. We select the evidence, or something does.
Parallel to the more involved of Stella's relationships are the Hiscox family, near neighbours in her new village; like her they are not local and don't fit into the life of a village steeped in ideas of generational belonging. Stella feels sympathy, and despite her credentials in professional observation, she thinks she feels empathy. Her mistakes in her interpretation of their connectivity are startlingly far reaching in effect.
What I both liked and admired most about this book was its narrative strategy and drive. From the first there are newspaper reports, letters, and advertisements woven into the narrative. Colour is added by one sided telephone conversations (my favourite of the narrative forms), and lists (such as contents of desks or bags) which invite interpretation on the part of the reader, like evidence on the anthropology of the novel. The official reports and letters provide the opinions of others who are not part of the text. In this way the text seems almost anchored outside itself like a cobweb across the fine new growth in a spring garden.
Though these paper documents are two dimensional, Lively's characterisation is not. She handles well the balance between the different portrayals of middle class academics, and the dysfunctional Hiscox family. Both sides prove an interference to Stella, both in very different but equally intrusive ways. But like any real observation things are hidden. Lively achieves verisimilitude by the absences, the darkness, the half said, half thought, the hidden, which lie between her documents and her main narrative. Indeed I suspect the last sentence of the book to consist of two words and be entirely in the reader's head. Theoretically speaking, the most perfect reader-response moment I have ever come across but nonetheless author controlled for that.
To sound more like an enthusiastic reader than a bolt upright critic, this is an involving read, often mildly amusing, and Stella is both exasperating and admirable. The quirky narrative, and earthy mix of characters work well together. Oddly, unlike a lot of books I enjoy, I didn't experience the 'not wanting it to end' feeling of involvement, but felt no less involved for that. And when I got to the unwritten sentence at the end, I shut the book with snap and thought, OK! Yes! Tick! Well done! Neat end. Neat closure.