Penelope Lively


Heat Wave


Lively is a capable professional writer. As she describes some of the scenes you can see past them to the novelist carefully surveying a place, taking notes and returning to proficiently write them up. The novel moves incredibly slowly, as if Lively can’t bear to leave any detail overlooked, any hint of shoddiness.


We get such a strong feeling of being inside Pauline, and Pauline is a triumph of authenticity. Lively, like Lodge, has the sense (and brave candour) to write mainly from the perspective of someone she could best understand – someone almost autobiographically like herself. This is not to say this is anything but imaginative fiction, and the events some sort of thinly disguised ‘tell-all’. Rather the way the central character views herself and the people around her feels very true. Hey, I’m not an introspective middle-aged woman, how would I know, but I suspect I’ve got a better idea of it after reading this book.


Slow paced, sure, but Lively analytically explores a classic common domestic tragedy: adultery. She doesn’t rage about it – these are recognisably inhibited English characters, there’s no swearing, slamming doors or gunplay. But don’t mistake it – there is an ice-cool venom here too.


There’s also despair at impotence: Pauline watches her daughter’s innocent contentment being punctured; she understands to several decimal places exactly what is going on – and what will ensue; how awful and unjust it is; and how there is essentially nothing she can do about it.


The novel eschews the satisfying relief of offering the characters (and the readers) the ‘answer’: “Now listen, Teresa, what you need to do right now is…”. Rather it more insightfully forces us to endure the ugly tension of living and conversing with someone who has betrayed and is essentially unrepentant and relatively unscathed. While the one deeply hurt through no personal fault is made to feel guilty. The conversations, the situations, the irresolvable tensions are played out in this awful understated but plausible way. Indeed, we get to feel it twice as Lively seamlessly moves between past and present.


I’m still left a bit uncomfortable with Pauline’s (Lively’s) utter certainty. In her world, much as in that of Passing On, we know precisely what to think of each character. I don’t really like having it spelt out for me quite so restrictively, and I’m forced towards suspicion of her implacable judgements. Oh, she’s careful to make sure we know this is not simply an ‘all men are bastards’ diatribe: Pauline has genuine affection for Hugh, and shows motherly care for Chris Rogers. But can we just write some folks off the way they are here? Maybe we can: if I was writing an honest novel about my feelings there’d be some irredeemable turds in there, and I’d not give them the time and space Lively gives to Maurice and Harry. But, as I say, this book gives you no room at all to move.


Spoiler warning:


If you’ve read the book, you know exactly what I’m about to address. If you haven’t read the book, show some sense and stop reading this review now.


Blimey – that was not the finish I was expecting, even if I might have wanted it. Very much like Passing On – all the action is crammed into the last chapter, or in this case, the last pages. Blam. That venom thing I was mentioning earlier …. Here’s this articulate, utterly civilised, educated, thinking, academic caring older woman, and the moral to the story: “It’d be better for everyone if you were dead.” No, this is not hyperbole.


Lively takes the liberty of fiction to apply a solution that does all it can to shake off the complacency of the adulterer.


November 2004