Monday, January 26, 2009

Time, Perceptions, Memory and Loss

Penelope Lively's novel, Consequences, begins in 1935, with an unhappy rich girl sitting weeping on a bench in St James's Park. Nearby, a young man sketches the ducks. Their accidental meeting will later be described as the opening of a game of consequences, from which flows a long, sometimes rich narrative. Lively uses the chronicling of the experience of love in the lives of three generations of women, beginning in the 1930s with Lorna, then focusing on Molly in the post-war years and finally rounding off the tale with up-to-date Ruth. But this is no 'family saga' novel. The book is about the way time changes perceptions, and about memory and loss.

This is not a long novel but it has a certain richness and covers such a swathe of time that it feels as if you have absorbed a great deal. The prose is elegant, the plotting meticulous but it seems sporadic as it jumps from decade to decade. Lively paints with quick, broad brushstrokes, then suddenly paints in a detail that brings her characters and their emotions to life on the page. The history of seventy years is sketched out in less than 300 pages, and yet you feel you know the principal characters intimately. Lively is a master at telling the reader more by writing less. However, I feel Consequences is a multi generational book that was poorly executed, for while Lively includes the portions of the characters lives that highlight the main women, both the men and the background events fade away, much like old wallpaper that has lost its patina. Some of the male characters are sketchy but the three women - in many ways, one woman seen at different times - are sensitively portrayed. As a whole, the characters were very one-dimensional and I couldn't help but wish that Lively would have dropped the whole idea of a multi generational book and instead concentrated solely on Lorna and Matt. A very modern book, Consequences is in some respects deeply traditional. True love is the ultimate fulfillment for all these women. It was not sufficient for this reader.

Consequences by Penelope Lively. Viking Press, New York. 2007.

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