if God looks like us…what’s the point?
The Booksmith will be the death of me, or at least of my groaning bookshelves. Most recent reads: Penelope Lively’s Family Album and Jane Gardam’s God on the Rocks. Both excellent, both deal very differently with coming of age in a specific kind of family.
In Lively’s book, it’s the English-countryside-Edwardian-manor-house family. Six kids, vast grounds, hot summer days, sibling dynamics. Most importantly, strange adults: Charles, a largely absent, academic father who spends his days writing in his study aware of children underfoot but totally disengaged; Alison, the smothering, well-meaning mother for whom the “real old-fashioned family” is the penultimate goal; Ingrid, the au pair is always lurking around the edges, indispensable to Alison and kind of creepy to this reader. The house itself is a repository for all the secrets, clutter, games, parties, meals of a family functioning in mostly silent unwillingness to acknowledge resentments, frustrations, and other emotions that have no place in the ideal old-fashioned family life. Album is so sharp and tightly drawn, almost relentlessly detached in its view of the Harpers. We don’t get close, we simply watch as each child’s experience and memories create the bigger picture of this family.
God on the Rocks was Jane Gardam’s first novel, originally published in 1978, and is being reprinted in November. She, like Lively, is in her 80s with a long and impressive career behind her, but is just now earning serious recognition (at least in the U.S.) after 2006’s Old Filth (Completely awesome. A must-read). Rocks is about 12 year-old Margaret, her devout Primal Saint father, her moody, compliant mother, the aristocratic Fraylings of her mother’s childhood, their maid Lydia and the ways a classist society and two world wars collide. Margaret is a delightful little shit. She’s memorized scads of scriptures at her father’s behest, tolerates her mother but barely, is sharply, vocally observant about the people around her and her own best judge. I loved her, was irritated by her, felt her frustration with her parents’ views on God, child-rearing, and the unspoken rules of a dying society.
I hope that at 80 I am as astute an observer of human nature as Lively and Gardam, and as able to take the subtlties, the frustrations, and the absurdity of life and family and make something as effective as these two books. Read ‘em.