(Who are the people in this photo? I don’t know. I took their picture from the inter-web. But I do like the small child in blue in the corner-left, as he/she seems to have the right idea in hiding her/his face. Scary the number of family portraits that turn up on Google images.)
Penelope Lively’s novel Family Album leaves as much mystery about its characters as this portrait. The family of the titular album is comprised of six children and three parents. The “shocking” reveal of the novel is that the au pair (whose name escapes me, such is her impression on this reader) mothers the final family child (Clare) with the patriarch and that the mother, zealously committed tothe importance of family, insists on raising Clare as her own. This reveal is not shocking. Any contemporary reader with a passing experience of family life will be attuned to the levels of secrecy operating in any given family. That the family members never speak about Clare’s parentage (until the last few pages) is also meant to be something of a shock, and again, I found this unsurprising. What family speaks openly about secrets? Is that not the nature of secrets to begin with?
If you are willing to put aside the scant basis for plot and turn only to character, you will be sadly disappointed. The characters each receive small chapters of third person limited narration, with slightly greater attention paid to the mother and the eldest daughter, Gina. Despite this narrative focus, none of the characters feel complex (at all), and so I found myself caring very little (or at all) about how they felt about anything – let alone how they were impacted by the dastardly father and the “deep dark” family secret. Indeed the characters felt as still and fixed as any portrait in an album.