Penelope Lively

 

Judgement Day

 

Clinical, able, honest, searching, manipulative.

 

Spoiler warning: I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to review a Lively without spoilers – the last three books of hers I’ve read have saved something shocking for the last few pages.

 

Lively always has something to say, in this case about this business of faith. As ever she uses her considerable skills to make her case, although she was perhaps gilding the lily a bit setting up Martin and Sydney Porter for the biggest of falls: like those ‘dead meat’ characters you know are about to die – honest old cops about to retire; earnest young men showing the hero a picture of their sweetheart before going over the top. But, sure, what do you do with situations like that? Does meaningless disaster lead you to or from faith?

 

On the way to yet another striking conclusion, Lively turns her analytical lens on a range of characters. Indeed, in one scene she takes us house by house up the street describing the activities and décor in each: you can just picture her standing on a street bending her imagination towards each of the windows. She’s wonderfully precise, and whether or not the characters she imagines reflect reality, you get a crystal image of what she (or someone a lot like her, like Clare Paling) thinks of the people in her neighbourhood.

 

I can’t just run with Lively, despite openly admiring her skills and insight, because of her straw men. The most she can seem to raise for anyone who might disagree with her is pity (but she’s not averse to contempt on occasion). She tries a bit harder with poor old George, making him a little sympathetic towards the end, but in making him the mouthpiece for faith she hardly sets her agnostic heroine a worthy adversary. I’m not saying clergymen like George don’t exist, but I am saying some pretty articulate and sincere clergy do who aren’t in the least threatened or surprised by the sorts of questions she raises. At best it’s ignorance, she just hasn’t met anyone with a strong faith whose belief is based on more than personality defects; but that’s stretching the benefit of the doubt a long way. You could pick up on this in a dozen ways, but just one that’s plain silly is this absurd juvenile hubris of presenting the only ones who really understand and appreciate the language and meaning of the bible are unbelieving literary dons who dig the Shakespearian vibe of the Authorised Version. For goodness sake, it’s not as if the whole business of bible translation hasn’t been kicked around a fair bit by a fair swathe of Christians (for whom, who would have thought it, this sort of thing is actually quite important), who could actually tell you the difference between ‘love’ and ‘charity’ (and agape and philos and eros and the rest). It’s an embarrassingly common weakness in a deal of self-righteous pagans who, after reading a couple of chapters (or, perhaps, verses) or even maybe doing a six month course, then talk from the greatest of condescending heights about how, say, St. John really believed in reincarnation (or wiccan, or homosexuality, or liberal theology, or skateboarding, or whatever suits your agenda) and dismiss those ignorant Christians who may have only been studying the thing for most of their lives, perhaps even picking up the odd PhD here and there, who keep banging on about those tired old themes of sin and redemption. 

 

Lively, however, rises above the pack when she turns her spotlight towards people she does have a right to talk about – people more like herself that she really knows and understands. Clare seriously thinks about the issue, for example, of why she has this comfortable life while myriad others are born to disease and want. She genuinely tries to understand why she has such antipathy towards George, and articulates this powerfully:

The trouble with people like me, one of the many troubles, is not so much that we’ve got all the answers as that we’re incapable of suspending disbelief… We try to make sense of the world, and it doesn’t make sense, so we take it out on all those other explanations that we find unsatisfactory. And we pile up guilt. Guilt for not having suffered, and guilt for being intemperate and uncharitable and … guilt today because my child is alive and someone else’s isn’t.

I’m not sure that so many of them have the empathy to feel such guilt.

 

Lively can take you to a place, a time, a person. She doesn’t have it all worked out, and makes some of the gaffs I’ve raised above, but what she does have (and that’s quite a lot), my goodness she can articulate it. She can be nasty and petty and didactic, but she can also take you into some really fascinating and challenging conversations. The novel suits her wonderfully – this stuff is far more gripping in the everyday (despite the signature sensational ending) than a thousand action novels that try to distract us from their empty idiocy with explosions and prurience (not saying that there isn’t a place for escapist fiction too). The novel isn’t just an excuse for speculative raves – Lively is good at structure as well and carries us along from start to finish with capably executed moves of scene, interaction and dialogue. I wish I could read a lot more books as well written as hers.

 

I wonder whether she could have written the relatively humble final chapter of this book ten or fifteen years later – blame is clearly and entirely placed on others in her later Passing On (89) and Heat Wave (96), rather than shared in any way. Some become less certain and judgemental as they age, but others, and Lively it appears among them, become more sure and dismissive. It’s an odd combination really, one minute Lively can bowl you over with her honesty and self knowledge, and the next with her ‘A Current Affair’ tabloid news style one-dimensional presentation of ‘baddies’.

 

October 2005