A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively is one of those British authors that we somehow almost take for granted. She’s been writing fiction since 19970, starting with children’s books and then moving onto adult novels, and is still producing work (her most recent being a memoir in 2013). I first encountered her through the children’s books which I read in my young adult years and loved for their mixture of fantasy and reality, tapping into the oldness of Britain and its legends and past. There was much wonderful children’s fantasy produced in the 1960s and 1970s and I’d like to revisit it one day.

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However, I’ve not yet managed to tackle her adult novels (although there are several lurking on Mount TBR). This volume, an autobiographical work based around her grandparents’ house, seemed a steal for 50p in the charity shop and was excellent reading during my recent struggles!

The house concerned is Golsoncott in Somerset, and Lively takes the novel approach of selecting a particular aspect of the building and its contents, using this as a jumping off point for a series of meditations on all manner of subjects from the decline of Pelican blue covered paperbacks to the shifting expectations of women from the 1950s onwards. Memory is the key here – the book was published in 2001 and Lively is contemplating the changes that have taken place during the previous century, much of which she has lived through, and that which she hasn’t she has fairly direct knowledge of. It’s a fascinating idea, and makes for an engaging book and some very thought-provoking discussions.

“Recollection cannot be shared – that fragmented vision with which each of us lives. In those old photographs of my young grandmother an incarnation of a person I would one day know looks out at me from elsewhere… when I pore over those groups I see them sited not in a place but a time.”

From what I recall of Lively’s fictions she’s very concerned with how the past and present interlink and inform each other, and that’s very to the fore here. She’s constantly exercising her memory to recall the layout of the house, which still exists, but only in her head. And she’s very good at getting into the mindset of a person from the past and imagining how they would have perceived things.

On the journey through Lively’s houses and meanderings we meet a wonderful array of characters – most notably her formidable grandmother and her artistic aunt Rachel, both striking personalities in their own right. Then there are those who have dipped in and out of the life of the house, including evacuees from London, a refugee from Nazi Germany and another from the Russian revolution. All have their stories to tell and Lively includes them all here.

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This was such a rich and satisfying read – slowly paced (and perhaps with just the occasional repetition), thoughtful and reflective, it’s a very clever way to look at the big changes in the world while recording the biography of a house and its occupants. The places where she considers the changes to women’s lives, to the structure of marriage and how different things have become in just one century are really eye-opening. It’s most definitely time I pulled more of Lively’s books off the shelf! πŸ™‚