Dame Penelope Lively has been a spokesperson for Penguin’s latest batch of A Puffin Book titles in which her 1974 novel, The House in Norham Gardens, appears. She is justifiably pleased to see her book reissued for new readers on a list which was the bedrock of children’s reading when her own children (she is now a grandmother) were young. Of course, she has written many more books in the past 42 years – including Moon Tiger which won the Booker Prize and Family Album shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award. A new collection of short stories is due this November. It’s lovely to know she still perceives the value of her early work in the context of a long and distinguished career.
It’s not her first major reissue – in 1991, Penguin reissued Going Back, which followed The House in Norham Gardens. It originally appeared as a children’s book ‘because that is what I thought I had written’ but was now on the adult list. In a new introduction, Penelope admitted she was actually flexing muscles for the kind of writing for adults she would embark on in earnest a couple of years later.
Unafraid to revisit past work, Penelope is also willing address her past self. When the Guardian featured Moon Tiger in their book club, she wrote: ‘I feel now as though someone else wrote it. Which is of course the case – I am not the person I was 23 years ago. But I remember her, and I know what she was up to, what I was trying to do.’ And she went on to provide a detailed commentary on the process of writing that novel.
Many of Penelope’s novels are a conversation about our engagement with time and memory. ‘You can’t ever stop things happening if they’re going to,’ says Clare, her protagonist, in The House in Norham Gardens, while other books are about people’s efforts to marshal memories to make sense of the past (and their present).
In her recent memoir, Ammonites and Leaping Fish, she wrote:
‘… I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me but interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life. I have the great sustaining ballast of memory; we all do, and hope to hang on to it. I am interested in the way memory works, in what we do with it, and what it does with us. And when I look around my cluttered house – more ballast, material ballast – I can see myself oddly identified and defined by what is in it: my life charted out on the bookshelves, my concerns illuminated by a range of objects.’
Penelope uses objects to explore her past, just as she used a house in an earlier memoir, A House Unlocked, to define the decades through which she has lived. I was reminded of both these books, and Going Back, and several others, when I reread The House in Norham Gardens.
Of course, it begins with a house – a very cluttered house, rundown, outdated, and presided over by two aged aunts who are repositories of memories and experiences but who are fascinated by contemporary life in England. Living with them is Clare, orphaned, much adored, and an integral part of the fabric of Norham Gardens. In fact, its artefacts invade her dreams and ignite the plot which is gripping and eventful. It also brings a new, but unfamiliar friendship with a Nigeran student.
Everything is permitted to happen because of the house. Here’s one of my favourite lines: ‘Going into the room, it was you became felt displaced in time: the room was quite at home.’ And, later: ‘How odd, how very odd, that the same room should, eventually, have held them both: Great-grandmother, in silk and whalebone, her mind furnished in the nineteenth century; John, in jeans and sweater, born thousands of miles away, speaking another language.’
Penelope Lively wrote of her fondness for her own aunt who lived in the house at the heart of A House Unlocked and she knew Norham Gardens well having studied at Oxford University and then moving to a village outside the city many years later.
I loved rereading The House in Norham Gardens, which installed me in a snowy January during a hot and sultry week in July. Even more, I loved the way it took me back to other books by one of my favourite writers so I could make connections: see how Penelope Lively’s approach and range have developed while remaining true to the interests which have always intrigued her – and which she so generously shares with her readers as the very best writers do.