Growing up

Dinah Birch

  • Passing on by Penelope Lively
    Deutsch, 210 pp, £10.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 233 98388 0
  • The man who wasn’t there by Pat Barker
    Virago, 158 pp, £10.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 86068 891 7
  • The Sugar Mother by Elizabeth Jolley
    Viking, 210 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 670 82435 6
  • Give them all my love by Gillian Tindall
    Hutchinson, 244 pp, £11.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 09 173919 5
  • Storm in the Citadel by Kate Saunders
    Cape, 293 pp, £12.95, March 1989, ISBN 0 224 02606 2

Growing up means leaving a family behind, and the novel has built itself around the diversity of separations that make maturity happen. It follows that any prospect of a universal rebellion against the family would be bad news for fiction. You can’t leave parents behind if they were no more than discredited ghosts in the first place. It’s tempting to suspect that an erosion of patriarchal authority had made today’s novelists more anxious about the staying power of the family than they used to be. There is plenty of evidence for such a thesis. But too much confidence in deducing a social revolution from chronicles of fathers found wanting or mothers that fail might be rash, for discontent with the family has been as persistent as the family itself. You don’t have to look very deeply into the history of fiction to discover delinquent parents. The fact is that astute writers, from Defoe onwards, have always known that families are at their most tenacious when they fall short of what we feel entitled to expect.

Penelope Lively has never been reluctant to identify with the domestic proficiencies of English fiction. Writing for children has been among its most assured traditions, and it may have been Lively’s numerous books for young readers that first led her to brood on what we need to learn from families, and how that learning can go wrong. The most robust character in her patient new novel, Passing on, is a mother who is not there. Dorothy Glover, a woman of formidable selfishness, is dead. She had three children: Helen, resigned to middle-aged unfulfilment; Edward, who has displaced his meek passions into worries about the environment; and the rebellious Louise, the only one who has succeeded in producing a family of her own. It soon becomes clear that Dorothy’s emotional ruthlessness has mangled the lives of her offspring. Even in death, she stalks their activities, mocking her elder daughter’s attempts to establish a belated independence. Helen begins to uncover some chilling episodes of family history. Dorothy had hidden, but not destroyed, a love letter to Helen that might have led to a marriage – Helen finds it carelessly concealed in an old corduroy jacket. The only dress in which Helen had been able to overcome teenage gaucheness had also, it turns out, been locked away. Meanwhile, the hapless Edward had been left to his own inadequate devices. Where was Daddy while all this parental chicanery and indifference was going on? ‘Distant, hazy, dead Daddy. Long since drowned out by other voices, other opinions; bleached now to a faded outline, a few mannerisms, a vague remembered preference for anchovy paste as opposed to jam. Could a lifetime be reduced to that?’ Timorous in life, Daddy has committed the ultimate act of parental neglect by retreating into a faintly recalled death.

A series of private misfortunes leads to a kind of liberation for these depressed and ageing children. Phil, an unruly nephew, comes to stay in their shabby house. He becomes a saving force, as Dorothy’s grumpiness begins to dim, like her husband’s futile amiability, into the distance of memory. Helen learns that she can make her own choices, even if they don’t amount to more than saying no, while Edward is forced into a bleak confrontation with his own nature. Both come to terms with diminished expectation, soberly resolving to make the best of what is left. ‘They saw that nothing is to be done, but that something can be retrieved. Both sniffed the air; each, gingerly, made resolutions.’

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