Sarah Coleman's Reviews > The Photograph

The Photograph by Penelope Lively
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Jul 08, 2012

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Read in July, 2012

Can a photograph change someone's life? That's the premise behind Penelope Lively's 2004 novel The Photograph. As the novel begins, recent widower Glyn accidentally finds an envelope stashed away by his late wife Kath on which is scrawled, 'Don't open -- destroy.' Naturally he opens it, only to find a photograph of Kath holding hands with her brother-in-law. This propels Glyn, an academic, into a new research project: he's determined to find out what happened. As he travels the country on his quest for truth, we hear variously from him, his sister-in-law, her husband, and a business associate who are all involved in the story of Kath. Lively channels a stream-of-consciousness in which each character deals with the problem at hand while also dipping into memories of Kath: this author is amazingly skillful at evoking the way in which memories float in and out of one's mind at inopportune times. I'm always interested in the way writers use photography (see my blog, and I'm a big fan of Lively (her Booker-winning novel Moon Tiger is one of my all-time favorites). But this novel, although very adept and clever, does not have the emotional resonance of Moon Tiger. The plot feels a bit schematic and the characters a tiny bit bland. If I could give it 3.5 stars I would, but I can't, so I'm erring on the side of under-rating. I'd still recommend it, though, since Lively's work is always worthwhile.

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