sábado, 6 de abril de 2013
By DOMINIQUE BROWNING
By Penelope Lively
224 pp. Viking. $25.95
Every family is charged with small acts of brutality. One child will flail about with scissors, another must bite or shove, and there’s always the pulling of hair or the tearing of skin. Someone will decide to experiment with matches or lock the door of a dark closet and abandon the sister cowering inside. A grown-up might pretend to be a lion and roar so hard that a child wets himself in panic. Banal but terrifying things happen. Then we forget them. Somehow, though, they don’t forget us. Memories lie buried, yet remain forceful enough to shape our lives. In its infinite dimensions, this is the subject Penelope Lively, the British author of more than two dozen children’s books and numerous adult novels, has explored throughout her long and impressive career. In her haunting new novel, “Family Album,” the act of forgetting is as strange and interesting as the power of remembering.
The story opens with a gorgeous, vivid sweep of domestic plenitude. There is “a substantial Edwardian house” called Allersmead, with gravelly drive, stone urns, lanky shrubs and, in the air, a redolent waft of hearty cooking. Perhaps a boeuf en daube (a culinary curtsy to Virginia Woolf, whose novel “To the Lighthouse” is a masterpiece of what is left unsaid in family drama). One of the grown-up daughters of the household, a television correspondent, has brought home a boyfriend. The Iraq war is on; Tony Blair and W.M.D.’s dominate the dinner conversation. Charles, the father, a writer, is vague but commanding, stern and detached. Alison, the mother, a housewife and a wonderful, exasperating character, is at the hub of the novel, presiding, as the narrative shoots back and forth from the present to the 1970s and ’80s, over a brood of six children with the help of Ingrid, a Scandinavian au pair who never leaves, even after her charges are grown. Allersmead is a shrine, “a real family house, and it’s got all the scars,” Alison tells her daughter’s boyfriend. “Such happy memories — everything reminds me of something.”
Alison is what used to be called, with some fond derision, an Earth Mother. “This is all she ever wanted: children, and a house in which to stow them — a capacious, expansive house. And a husband of course. And a dear old dog.” She is hapless about household management, but always smiling — when she isn’t sobbing. Her hair spills from her bun; she is shapeless and badly dressed; she is ignorant of the world. The feminist movement has left her behind — or she has chosen to ignore it, stranded in the kitchen. She is happy there. This is a woman who wakes up thinking about lemon chicken recipes and ratatouille, worries about whether she should serve pommes dauphinoise or just mashed potatoes, stays up late into the night icing cakes. She doesn’t read her husband’s books. She loves her house, and she wants everyone to know how much she has loved her life there.
The novel unfolds from different points of view, alternating between the children and the grown-ups. Images are constantly refracted, refocused, as if a kind of unknowability were at work. A sister-in-law remarks on Alison’s “majestic complacency,” but it’s soon clear that it is more a desperate complacency.
There is, of course, a dark secret. There has to be when a woman stands in her kitchen, casting a loving eye over her ovenware and knives, wondering about dinner, thinking how lucky she is. No one is ever so lucky. The house, the gardens, the kitchen, the festivities — they once seemed so perfect. But why, all these years later, does Allersmead feel hollowed out? Why has it become “a sort of empty stage”? Only the oldest son, Paul, whose life has been stunted by drug and alcohol addiction, lives there with his parents and the au pair. We are meant to understand that his father’s cold detachment has derailed him. His siblings are scattered across the globe. There are no grandchildren. No one worships at Alison’s shrine.
Children always want to know whom their parents love best. Paul knows because his mother has told him. He is her favorite, and nothing he ever does is his fault. Still, her first child has broken her heart. A chapter describing the occasion of Alison and Charles’s 25th wedding anniversary is a jewel of compacted pain. Alison is in tears at the beginning, not knowing if Paul will even bother to show up. He does, but by the end of an elaborate meal Alison is in tears again because Paul, “drunk or something,” trips and smashes a set of precious dishes that once belonged to her mother. That isn’t all that’s been shattered. “Why did we get married?” Alison, sobbing, asks Charles while preparing for bed. “I seem to recall you were pregnant.” “Oh, of course,” Alison replies. “I knew there was something.”
The real sadness at the heart of the story, the event no one faces for years, isn’t meant to be a mystery that’s dramatically revealed. Instead, it’s the sort of thing everyone in the family knows about, in that vague, just-beneath-consciousness way that one knows what one isn’t supposed to know. It’s either ignored or denied or manipulated. It doesn’t ignite a cataclysm, and that gives it its terrible power. It’s contained, and smolders. It comes to light midway through the novel, as everyone circles around the truth — no, not the truth, just a truth, one among the many in any family’s life. I don’t think Lively intends for the secret to provide narrative tension. Rather, it’s the slow, inexorable way everyone comes to acknowledge the event that makes it quietly devastating.
The novel ends in a decay of writing, but not because Lively’s own writing is any less precise. Charles dies, and the children must come together, both to honor him and to decide what to do about the house, too large and unwieldy for their mother and the au pair. They send e-mail messages to one another. This is irritating but effective. Internet language is pared, ruthless, stripped of emotion. The language of real-estate brochures is even worse. But that’s what it comes down to in this family’s album. That and the end of the large, rich, sprawling life of a house that has somehow left a dead place in each and every full, yearning heart that once beat there.
Dominique Browning’s “Slow Love: How I Got Knocked Off the Fast Track, Put On My Pajamas for a Year, and Found Happiness” will be published in May.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 20:04