Now and then one comes across a character in a book who is hauntingly unforgettable. Kath, the central character here is someone such. The regret that comes with the contemplation of lost lives, and loss in general, is not easily cast aside.
It takes great skill and an inward looking perspective for a writer to construct a novel around a character who is already dead when the story begins. What follows must needs be a meditation in negative space on the subject of the human condition in general, and more specifically the degree to which we human being are aware or unaware of each other’s ‘human condition’, even when we are spouses, relatives and close associates of each other.
Kath’s husband Glyn discovers a photograph of her buried in his papers. The irony cannot be missed. Kath begins to come alive to him when he discovers her likeness hidden among his forgotten papers months after she is already dead and buried.
Kath had committed suicide for reasons that are unclear to almost everyone in her life, and to none more so than Glyn, since he had never troubled to grasp who and what she really was when she was alive. We as readers come along for the ride in his search to discover who and what she was, and to unravel the mystery of her life and death. in the mean time of course we discover things about the other characters in the story, mainly Kath’s sister Elaine, her husband Nick, but others as well.
The writer, Penelope Lively, casts an unflinching eye on the several relationships in this novel. She deftly strips them of their conventional veneers to reveal what lies beneath. No one is spared. The question which is asked and explored, but not fully answered, – because perhaps it does not lend itself to an answer, is, ‘what is it that keeps us alive and living’ : What keeps us going, and how can we manage to go on if we cannot find it ourselves, and there is no one to give us what we need in order to stay connected to life.
Lively makes us see how spouses and children ( Elaine, Nick and Peggy their daughter) must come to terms with huge rifts and tears in parental and spousal relationships if they are not to do without relationships entirely.
She (Lively) has also some light to shed on our probable fate if, as in Glyn’s case, the enormity of the lesson being delivered by life is such that we simply lack the ability to take it in.
Kath has the feverish beauty and fragility of the woman pursued by demons and doomed to kill herself. In some way she reminds us of real life women like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath as well as fictitious characters such as Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, and makes us ponder about the mysteries of their deaths as well.
Looking at her through the eyes of the people who knew her, we are compelled to try and sort out the artifacts large and small, hidden and revealed, of Kath’s existential dilemma. The spokes of the story only began to draw together for me with the presence of Mary Packard, the stable hub in the centre of all the revolving characters.
While this novel unfolds as a reflection of the aftermath of an ‘inexplicable’ death, it is also a serious investigation int0 the kind of re-examination of purpose and priority which then devolve on the living, It is also a highly symmetrical study of human relationships; specifically couple relationships, and even further than that, of as many different types of couple relationships as could have been effectively got into a novel. The couples made still more sense to me when I classified them as the dyads in the ‘cross multiplication’ of fractions. For example, Nick/Kath fun-loving,enthusiastic, imaginative, negligently left by their respective spouses to shift as well as they could, and Elaine/Glyn, who with their highly successful careers and monumental self-absorption tended to ignore or treat as trivial their rather more skittish spouses. it was not surprising that Kath and Nick paired off – drawn i think by the many things they had in common both as individuals and lacked in common as spouses.
Then of course there were the ‘types’ of marriages – Oliver, the not quite marriage – Polly – the marriage to be, Margot and Glyn – the ‘never was going to be’ marriage, Kath and Glyn – the totally lost marriage, Elaine and Nick – the lost and possibly found marriage and of course the ‘should have been because they totally would have deserved each other marriage, Elaine and Glyn. each individual seemed to have chosen a spouse who possessed the traits they most coveted. that this strategy is bound to fail seems to be one of the points Lively is making. I think Kath succumbed to despair when she ‘struck out’ in her attempt to find fulfillment first with Glyn, then with Nick, and finally with her wish to have a child.
The irony of course is that eventually none of these things could have saved her or made her happy. What makes Kath central to me was that she alone looked unflinchingly into the abyss of dissatisfaction and disappointment that life so frequently turns out to be.
Lively’s ‘immortal hand and eye’ have neatly formed ‘these fearful symmetries’ and relational acrostics for our edification and benefit, but miraculously she has accomplished this feat with a total absence of preachments, and without for an instant losing sight of the delicacy and fragility of our humanity.
If there was an elephant in the ‘room’ of this novel, it was Love: but Lively is much too astute to tell us so. Instead she shows us in relentless detail, the huge empty landscapes our lives become in its absence.