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December 6, 2009

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Home with dark secret

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.

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 1980s, 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."

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 oven ware 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.

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 every-one in the family knows about, in that vague, just-beneath-consciousness way that one knows what one isn't supposed to know.


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