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Haunting 'Album' exposes family secrets

Penelope Lively's latest foray into the human psyche considers the paradox of growing up in a large, secretive family wherein everyone is "utterly familiar and entirely unknown."

Titled "Family Album," it is a flat-out joy of a novel, told from the points of view of two parents, six children -- and a Scandinavian au pair who joined the Harper family when the children were small, and mysteriously never left.

"We grew children, not flowers," the book's disorganized mother, Alison, explains both the size of the family, and the frayed condition of Allersmead, the marvelously named Edwardian manor in which the children were raised.

Lively -- who keeps the main action, in no particular order, between 1982 and 2008 -- describes a spring morning when all nine still live at Allersmead, in suburban England:

"None of them more than a yard or two from someone else, but all poles apart within their heads, their hearts. The adults are incapable of recovering what it is that goes on inside the mind of a person of six and a half, or ten, or fifteen. The children have on the whole not the faintest idea of what it is that drives or motivates their elders, or of the landscape of their thoughts. The children have various instinctive understandings of why their siblings behave as they do; the adults retain the intimacy of daily association but have lost sight of one another in other ways -- like most people, they know one another inside out, and not at all."

Allersmead is the constant here. In fact, "Allersmead" may be the more fitting title for this book -- as Allersmead serves as both the stage for its action and the keeper of its soul.

It is within Allersmead that the Harper family and Ingrid the au pair exist -- like errant houseplants growing unpredictably within its confines.

"The house hears everything," Lively tell us. "The house knows. It knows all that has been said, all that has been done. Silent speech hangs in the air, and repeats the words that hang in people's heads: 'I am a servant,' 'I seem to recall that you were pregnant,' 'Who did you love best?'. . . Past and future become one -- what has been said, what will be said, the silent witness of this place."

In this sense, "Family Album" (first published in England last year) is haunting. But it also -- and often -- is light, amusing and spot-on. Take the cellar game. Anyone who grew up in a large family (this reviewer was also one of six) knows about the cellar game.

In Lively's version, "the cellar is not a cellar at all. It is, variously, the Pacific Ocean, the Antarctic, the open prairie . . . the damp Edwardian brick walls dissolve, the cindery floor melts away. The packing cases, the Ping-Pong table, the doorless cupboard all become habitations; the old lawn mower is a sled, a horse, a ship."

But there is a further game, one the Harper children often fall into -- in which they create an alternate family, with a stern father, and a lax mother who doesn't even cook, and children who are often subversive, who misbehave and talk back -- as if they are not the Harper family but a family-through-the-looking-glass.

This is a revealing, sometimes dark game -- for the children's actual father, Charles, is a rarely stern book author. He "merely looks resigned and detached." And Alison ("earth mother" that she is, and a strange match for Charles) cooks to a fare-thee-well, making Allersmead as much the sounds and smells of Alison's cooking as it is house and grounds: "Lemon chicken . . . Sunday lunch and coq au vin and Lancashire hot pot and macaroni and cheese and apple crumble."

Lively makes it clear, from the beginning, that all is not what it seems here -- or at least not what Alison would have the world believe of Allersmead. A great secret is hinted at, and easy to guess. It is, as one of the children later puts it, "a fact -- but a submerged one." The Harper children -- Paul, Gina, Sandra, Roger, Katie and Clare -- are used to secrets:

No one knows, or seems interested in, exactly how Gina got a large facial scar on her eighth birthday. Ditto for which of them took scissors to one of Charles' just-completed manuscripts, shredding it beyond recognition.

But the larger secret, the one everyone suspects but never discusses, is what causes the real fissure in the family. It is also Lively's greater point in the book: Families go off kilter when a significant secret is kept, leaving each member to go it alone:

"They know. They all know, eventually. They know but the knowledge is tamped down, stowed away somewhere out of sight and out of mind. The house knows, and is silent, locking away what has been done and said and thought."

But, as a great secret festers in the Harper family, there is also a great richness in the Harpers' life that veterans of large families will recognize.

Sibling quarrels, sibling cliques, homespun birthdays, gigantic outings, Christmases in a bit of chaos, sometimes with "loaded" gifts -- they are all here, as are the distinct personalities of the children, from Paul the eldest (who copes with drugs and alcohol and never settles on a profession) to Clare the youngest (who follows her dream to become a dancer).

There is even the famous large-family phenomenon of no one remembering the same event in the same way. And Lively acknowledges the times, at one point setting the action during the Falklands War; at another, placing Gina, now a well-known television journalist, in today's hot spots.

One of England's most beloved authors, Lively (who has received Britain's prestigious Booker Prize -- and was short-listed for the 2009 Costa Prize with "Family Album") -- draws us straight into the book.

And she keeps us there, to the last page -- where we find the family's beloved Allersmead for sale, the ad for it is lush and inviting and containing, toward the end, the telling words "extensive cellar."

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.


Family Album

By Penelope Lively


225 pages, $25.95

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