Penelope Lively


Passing On





I realised about half way through this book that I had read it before (the first thing to really push my recognition buttons was a typically straw man attack on Creationists. I also remembered the technique she used of telling us early that one of her characters fiddled with their glasses when perplexed, and later just saying when they started fiddling). All the plot seems to happen in the last couple of chapters, whereas until that point we’re just getting a picture of the main two characters. Our central character, Helen, is a 52 year old woman dealing with the death of her overbearing mother, who may have actually altered the whole course of her daughter’s life by, for example, not handing on a potentially vital love letter Helen finds while sorting her mother’s things. The issue for Helen is less whether things really would have been different if her mother hadn’t have been involved than how much she is to blame for not taking a stand, for being too pliant.


Lively is good, you get to like and respect Helen. A major theme is linking nature to our lives: how do we deal with the fact that we really are just beasts with intelligence? (The conclusion manages to have some hope in this bleak outlook: “They saw that there is nothing to be done, but that something can be retrieved.”) This is the assumption - obviously I deal with it differently to Lively. And I suppose I put a minus after the A because I think her insight, while profound in some areas, doesn’t extend to respecting anyone with alternate views. The novel is a bit preachy (in a relatively subtle way - it’s not the only concern of the book), and does unapologetically reduce several characters to mere goodies and baddies (eg. Ron Plaget, Helen’s mother, Giles Carnaby, Susan Wilmot). She also is pushing a pretty tough barrow: she wants us to feel sympathy for Helen’s 49 year old brother, a repressed homosexual who gropes the neighbour’s 14 year old, and to utterly condemn, in contrast, anyone in society opposed to homosexuality - including the father of the 14 year old (set up for a fall, of course, an utterly immoral opportunist). The way she tells the story, we are sympathetic, but it is such a contrived ‘moral’ that makes its point but undermines the universality of the story.


Plotwise, slow moving, sure, but a dynamite finish, with several things all happening at once, rather than conveniently pacing themselves throughout the drama. We reel with the characters with no time to wallow over major events as more major ones rudely jump in. The irony is thick as Helen’s younger sister talks on about her daily crisis’ assuming that her stick in the mud single older siblings will have had nothing to report - when actually they’re going though much more that she probably will never give the chance to hear (shades of some conversations I’ve had with … also reminds me of that ably presented scene in ‘Pulp Fiction‘ where Bruce Willis’ character, on the run from the mob, has to tread carefully around his girlfriend’s potential tantrums about her nails or whatever).


Like I said, she’s good - but she should read some Hornby and see it’s possible to present characters that differ but are both respectable. It does surprise me when people like Lively or Adam Spencer (JJJ presenter/mathamatician) do just write off anyone who believes that the complexity and beauty of nature suggest there is a God. Not just disagree, but vehemently abuse. Surely somewhere they’ve come across someone they respect who holds to this idea? Maybe they have but can’t put the two together. Christians with half a brain have known and made it clear for ages that some very intelligent people are atheists. How about some atheists with half a brain making it clear that some very intelligent people are theists?


August 2002