2 reviews

The Photograph
by Penelope Lively

Published: 2004-05-25
Paperback : 240 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 2 of 2 members
Look out for Penelope Lively’s new book, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories.

Man Booker Prize–winning novelist Penelope Lively’s latest masterpiece opens with a snapshot: Kath, before her death, at an unknown gathering, holding hands with a man who is not her husband. The ...
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Lively is a grande dame of British letters whose novels have attracted readers of Ian McEwan and Iris Murdoch--as well as those enthralled by her insight into relationships and family. "The Photograph" brings her talents into a whole new page-turning realm, and is Lively at her very best, the dazzling and intriguing climax to all she has written before.

Editorial Review

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Kath steps from the landing cupboard, where she should not be.

The landing cupboard is stacked high with what Glyn calls low-use material: conference papers and student references and offprints, including he hopes an offprint that he needs right now for the article on which he is working. The strata in here go back to his postgraduate days, in no convenient sequential order but all jumbled up and juxtaposed. A crisp column of Past and Present is wedged against a heap of tattered files spewing forth their contents. Forgotten students drift to his feet as he rummages, and lie reproachful on the floor: 'Susan Cochrane's contributions to my seminar have been perfunctory …’ Labelled boxes of photographs - Aerial, Bishops Munby 1979, Leeds 1985 -are squeezed against a further row of files. To remove one will bring the lot crashing down, like an ill-judged move in that game involving a tower of balanced blocks. But he has glimpsed behind them a further cache which may well include offprints. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

Publisher's Reading Guide Questions:

1. When Glyn stumbles upon the photograph of Kath holding hands with Nick, he feels "driven to extract from this vital piece of evidence all that it can tell about how things were back then, since it appears that they were not as they seemed to be at the time, nor as I have believed them to have been ever since" (p. 15). He expects to find further infidelities, but what harsher truths, about himself as well as Kath, does he uncover? In what ways does he need to learn these things? In what ways does his professional life suit him to his search?

2. Why does Lively tell the story from different points of view? In what ways are multiple perspectives appropriate to the nature of the story?

3. Oliver thinks that Kath "has become like some mythical figure, trawled up at will to fit other people's narratives. Everyone has their way with her, everyone decides what she was, how things were. It seems to him unjust that in the midst of this to-do she is denied a voice" (p. 168). In what ways do the other characters in the novel use and distort the reality of who Kath was to "fit" their narratives? Does the narrative of the novel itself give Kath her own "voice"?

4. After Elaine's conversation with Mary Packard, when she learns that Kath had two devastating miscarriages, she thinks: "The nonbabies are now loud and clear, who did not exist a couple of hours ago. Kath's nonchildren. Because of them—because of these beings who never were—there is a new flavor to much that was said, much that was done. When Kath speaks now, Elaine hears a new note in her voice. Kath says the same things, but she says them in a new way" (p. 221). In what ways is the novel as a whole about not only how the past changes the present but how the present changes the past?

5. Kath is forever intruding into people's thoughts, rising up before them unbidden. Why does her absent presence have such power for the characters who survived her? In what ways did the absent presences of her own unborn children affect the course and outcome of her life?

6. In trying to reconstruct his life with Kath, Glyn recalls Kath's telling him something. "You're not listening, are you?" she asks. Glyn thinks, "Not listening, no. But now he is listening. He is listening hard" (p. 122). To what extent is Glyn, in his inability to listen and to know Kath, responsible for her death? What crucial things about Kath does he fail to understand? Why was he unable to listen fully to her when she was alive? Did he really love her?

7. Kath appears to others as a kind of embodiment of pure being, a beautiful, self-assured woman spontaneously following her whims wherever they might lead. Why do the other characters fail to see the deep insecurities that plague her? What is the "dark malaise" behind and beyond her looks? In what sense is her beauty both a privilege and a curse?

8. Why does Lively describe in such detail what Glyn, Elaine, Nick, and Polly were doing the day Kath took her life? What is the significance of Kath's unreturned phone calls to Glyn and Elaine? Would the outcome have been different had those calls been answered?

9. When Oliver visits Mark Packard, he has "an eerie feeling that this woman might know everything anyway, by some osmotic process, like the wise woman of folktales" (p. 223). Is this merely a fanciful projection on Oliver's part, or does Mary seem to have access to a kind of "knowing" the other characters can't attain? Or is it simply that she listened to Kath more fully, and with less self-interest, than they did?

10. How surprising is it to learn the reasons for Kath's suicide? Do these reasons seem in keeping with her character? Why were none of the people who knew her best able to see that she was in danger?

11. In its dramatization of the relationships between Glyn and Kath, Nick and Elaine, and Nick and Kath, and to a lesser extent between Oliver and Sandra, Glyn and Myra, and Polly and her boyfriends, what does the novel suggest about our ability to know each other? What does it suggest about the role listening plays in such relationships?

12. At the end of the novel, Glyn relives the moment of finding Kath after she has committed suicide. "He moves through the day again and again, and at the end he sees what he saw then. The sight is the same as ever it was, except that it is informed by new wisdoms, and he looks differently" (p. 231). What are those "new wisdoms"? How is Glyn's perception—of himself and of Kath—different now from what it was then?

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by Deirdre P. (see profile) 07/23/19

  "The Photograph"by Nancy B. (see profile) 08/26/16

A 10-year widower (Glyn), while looking for something packed away in boxes, uncovers an envelope marked "do not open - destroy". Not recognizing it, he did what any person would do - he open... (read more)

  ""The Photograph"{"by Paula J. (see profile) 10/01/14

Not a long book, but lots of great discussion
subjects. Penelope Lively is a master at
characterization.....you can picture each
character in detail.

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