Blasts from the Past: The Photograph by Penelope Lively (2003)

Cover image for The Photograph by Penelope LivelyThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

I’ve read several novels by Penelope Lively plus her lovely memoir, Ammonites and Leaping Fish, all of which I’ve enjoyed but my favourite is The Photograph, one of the first novels I read that takes an image as a catalyst for the story it unfolds. This one begins with a shock for a man who’s recently lost his wife.

Kath was an exquisitely beautiful woman; carefree and spontaneous, she lit up a room when she entered it, drawing people to her and carrying them along with her enthusiasm. When Glyn, her husband, finds an envelope amongst his papers labelled in Kath’s hand ‘Don’t open –destroy’ he is unable to resist, but the photograph he finds inside will shake his view of both himself and Kath. By the end of this slim, elegantly constructed novel, Glyn and several of the people who had thought themselves closest to Kath, are forced to the painful conclusion that they had not the slightest idea who she was or of the unhappiness that haunted her. In characteristically cool, spare prose Lively tells Kath’s story thorough the voices of the novel’s main characters, punctuating their narratives with vivid, snapshot memories of Kath.

I’m not sure why, but The Photograph seemed not to attract as much as attention as most of Lively’s novels. A shame. I loved this thoughtful exploration of the way we view our pasts and our perceptions of other people who are often so very different from the way they appear to us.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

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30 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: The Photograph by Penelope Lively (2003)”

  1. This is so strange that you published this post today Susan! I was going through my bookshelves yesterday and discovered I had some Penelope Lively books, that I had never read any, and The Photograph was one of them! Your review has pushed it right to the top of my pile now, so thank you xx

  2. Thanks for this review, Susan. I’ve recently been thinking about books that have stuck with me years after I read them. Trying to figure out what exactly makes me remember each one has helped me understand my progression as a reader.

    1. You’re welcome, Mary. Looking back over years of reading can be enlightening can’t it. Sometimes when I’m choosing books for these posts I’m surprised that novels I’d thought wonderful at the time have lost their charm. Not this one, though.

  3. No blasts from the past from me. But I remember loving PL’s books when I was younger – though I never read this one – and it looks as if it might be time to revisit her work.

  4. The Photograph was the first Penelope Lively book that I ever read. It was around 20 years ago. When I read your review, I remembered scenes and characters that impressed me that long time ago. She is such a good writer.

  5. I vividly remember reading this on the subway, losing track of my stops, wondering how such a quiet story could be so powerful as to overcome the din of the morning and evening commutes.

  6. Excellent post. I read this too some years ago. I remember liking it a lot, more than Moon Tiger which I now can’t remember at all. The photograph was a beautifully subtle novel. Jacqui sent me a Penelope Lively novel for Christmas called The Road to Lichfield which I am looking forward to.

    1. I’d agree about Moon Tiger. The Photograph has stayed with me in a way that hasn’t. I’ve not come across The Road to Lichfield but I assume Jacqui rated it highly.

  7. My local foreign languages library has it (not a given considering I’m not in the UK) and I feel this discovery will disrupt my – anyway not very firm – reading plans. Thank you; I’ve made wonderful discoveries with some of your previous blasts from the past.

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