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Review of 'The Photograph' by Penelope Lively: Effect of a Forgotten Photo Disrupting People's Lives.

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I love to read and am enthusiastic about recommending any book I consider a great read. Fiction or non-fiction, it must be well written.

Front cover of 'The Photograph' (2003)

Front cover of 'The Photograph' (2003)

An Opening Sentence to Grab You

‘Kath steps from the landing cupboard, where she should not be.’

‘The Photograph’, published in 2003, begins with this intriguing sentence. How often have you read advice to writers, ‘Grab your audience in the first sentence and you’ve got them hooked’? This sentence hooked me.

Who is Kath? What’s she doing in the cupboard? Why shouldn’t she be there? All these questions are answered as one progresses through the story.


Glyn, a landscape historian, is rummaging through the landing cupboard, trying to find some information ‘filed’ there years ago.

He comes across some photos of his late wife, Kath, along with a sealed envelope marked ‘Destroy’. Of course, he doesn’t destroy it; would you?! In fact he opens it and along with it opens a can of worms.

It contains a photograph. The author conveys well the sense of being suspended in time when Glyn discovers, in the photograph, a betrayal which knocks the breath out of him:

‘The disease now has him by the throat. The throat, the gut, the balls. What he feels is... well, what he experiences is the most appalling stomach-churning, head-spinning cauldron of emotion.’

Contradictory Memories

Apart from showing how memory can be distorted, can be different depending on the viewpoint and can leap into our minds when least expected, this story deals with how the memory of Kath doesn’t actually reflect her real personality. Those who think they knew her discover a different Kath.

Glyn's Reaction

He considers several paths of action but there is rarely any thought that he should not act, should not talk about his find with the others involved. He can’t ignore the evidence: ‘That photograph smoulders in its envelope, and in his head.’

Glyn, now obsessed, has to follow up what he sees and so begins a journey which challenges his memory, bringing up much of the past for him and for many others.

Glyn and Kath

Glyn is self-centred and obsessional; his need to know is overpowering. He doesn’t care if he destroys others in the process.

Kath, though dead, is a central character in the story. She fascinated everyone, they all thought she was beautiful, happy, had the best possible life. Maybe she wanted to stir the waters and knew that Glyn would open the envelope. Did she want them all to understand her better, to realise what she was really like?

His mission destroys, or at least changes, other people’s relationships. However, it does make them all think about their former lives and how they might deal with the future.

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Nick and Elaine

Nick, Glyn’s brother-in-law, thinks life is fine and all things will be resolved in the end, by someone else. He’s oblivious of what others feel, as opposed to Glyn who does realise what others could feel but goes ahead regardless.

Nick is portrayed as a big, blundering puppy who doesn't want to face 'real life' and the consequences of his actions. In effect he hasn't grown up and needs his wife to run his life.

Elaine, Nick’s wife, is outwardly bossy, appears hard, or at least matter of fact, and good at organising. She runs her own gardening business. She has to think carefully about her life and the way she’s treated people. I like Elaine; she stands no nonsense but has a soft centre.

Mary Packard

There is one character who is always there in the background, mentioned by several of the others. She’s Mary Packard and we’re left wondering where she fits in, what she knows; finally, we find out and Glyn finds out a lot more about his late wife, Kath. Mary, in a way, brings it all together.

Memories are Made of This

The theme of Memory is strong throughout. We see that

  • memories can be totally unreliable,
  • people are kept alive by others' memories,
  • different people have different memories, sometimes conflicting depending on their relationship or situation,
  • memories, one's own or someone else's, trigger other memories,
  • memories can also be 'acquired' through someone else reporting an event over and over 'til you adopt it as your own,
  • the photograph shows something that Glyn doesn't remember because he wasn't there but others remember the event though didn't see the details at the time (even Oliver who took the photo),
  • memories can suddenly invade the mind, triggered by something seemingly random,
  • memories make you think, re-evaluate

Questions and Thoughts

Questions are asked. Who’s to blame? What should they have done?

The story also acts as a warning. When you push for information, search for the truth, you can find out more than you're prepared for, you can stir up a hornets' nest. It shows us that we might not know or understand people as well as we think. Glyn was too absorbed in 'self'. In the end, was his journey worthwhile?

Imagery, Emotions and My Own Thoughts

I enjoyed the read tremendously. I like the easy style. The imagery is refreshing, such as when Glyn is looking out onto the garden, ‘a squirrel pours down the trunk of the cherry tree in one fluid movement.’ What a great choice of words!

Everyday emotions, reactions and events are portrayed with accuracy. We can identify with these characters, or at least recognise each one.

We get an overview of Kath from each character’s viewpoint and varying memories.

‘The Photograph’ poses so many questions. It explores jealousy, obsession, responsibility, loyalty and how we judge others on a superficial level. It asks us if our memories are accurate, subjective or objective and what influences them.

It shows how important it is to value others, to talk, ask questions, above all to listen; to consider others’ feelings and reactions.

I recommend this novel. The characters are alive, the dilemma real and the different threads of memory are fascinating. I hope you enjoy it!

Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively, aged 80

Penelope Lively, aged 80

Adult Fiction Titles by Penelope Lively

The Road to Lichfield (1977)

Nothing Missing but the Samovar, and other stories (1978)

Treasures of Time (1979)

Judgment Day (1980)

Next to Nature, Art (1982)

Perfect Happiness (1983)

Corruption, and other stories (1984)

According to Mark (1984)

Pack of Cards, Stories (1978-86)

Moon Tiger (1987)

Passing On (1989)

City of the Mind (1991)

Cleopatra's Sister (1993)

Heat Wave (1996)

Spiderweb (1998)

The Photograph (2003)

Making it Up (2005)

Consequences (2007)

Family Album (2009)

How It All Began (2011)

Notes on the Author, Penelope Lively

Dame Penelope Margaret Lively, DBE, FRSL, was born on 17th March 1933.

She is a prolific author of fiction for children and adults, as well as non-fiction.

She won the Booker Prize for British novels in 1987, for 'Moon Tiger' (adult fiction) and the Carnegie Medal for British children's books in 1973, for 'The Ghost of Thomas Kempe' (children's fiction).


Copyright annart (AFC) 2014 (No copying without permission; no changing of original hub)

© 2013 Ann Carr


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on February 21, 2016:

Thanks Glenis! I appreciate your two visits today.

I too like her writing. The various characters in this one are so different; it's one of the rare books where you feel like shaking some of them!


Glen Rix from UK on February 21, 2016:

Correction to previous recommendation - Oleander, Jacaranda. Senior moment.

Glen Rix from UK on February 21, 2016:

Love Penelope Lively's writing, so this is on my reading list. I recommend her autobiographical novel The Jacaranda Tree?

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on March 01, 2014:

kerlund74: Yes it is a great story; intriguing, sympathetic, with great insight into characters. I hope you get round to reading it.

Thanks for reading and for leaving a kind comment. Ann

kerlund74 from Sweden on February 28, 2014:

Great review, seems like a really great novel to read, my kind of story:)

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on February 16, 2014:

Thanks for visiting, Dolores. Glad it's inspired you and hope you get around to reading this one or any of hers; they're all good. Ann

Dolores Monet from East Coast, United States on February 16, 2014:

Hi Ann, I am always looking for something new to read - thanks for the review! I'll have to check her out!

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on February 03, 2014:

Thank you Eddy, for your comment, the votes and sharing. All the best to you. Ann

Eiddwen from Wales on January 30, 2014:

A great review Ann and as always voted up and shared.

Enjoy your day.


Ann Carr (author) from SW England on January 08, 2014:

Thank you ps! Ann

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on January 07, 2014:

Well now I know I have to find this and read....I am bookmarking and adding Penelope's name to my list of must read authors.

Great review.

Angels are on the way to you once again this evening ps

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 23, 2013:

Thank you, ps, for your kind comments and for sharing this. I hope you get round to reading it and enjoying the story. Lively is a great writer. All the best to you. Ann

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on December 22, 2013:

Hi Ann

I have never read any of Penelope's works. I am an avid reader but generally read the same type of writer or try to discover a new one. I will definitely be giving this book a try. Thanks for the thorough and detailed review.

Shared and pinned

Angels are on the way to you and yours ps

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 21, 2013:

mylindaelliott: I'm glad I've whetted your appetite to read this. Thanks for visiting and for the comment.

mylindaelliott from Louisiana on December 20, 2013:

Your review made it sound very interesting. I will check out the author and her books.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 15, 2013:

CrisSp: Thanks for reading and for your comment. I hope you get round to reading this book and that you enjoy it! I'll skip over and have a look at your profile.

CrisSp from Sky Is The Limit Adventure on December 15, 2013:

Interesting! I always read reviews before I grab a book and this one is certainly on the list.

Thank you.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 08, 2013:

You've hit the nail on the head, teaches - 'sink into' is a great description of spending time on a good read. One does actually sink into a story and get involved! Thanks for your kind comments and I hope you do get round to reading this absorbing tale. Ann

Dianna Mendez on December 07, 2013:

I love a good book that I can sink into for a day or so. Great review and one that interests me to pick it some day for a good read.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 06, 2013:

Thank you, Jodah, for reading and for your kind comments. I'm glad you liked the review and hope that you enjoy reading this story. She is a brilliant writer - for children and for adults. Ann

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on December 06, 2013:

This book certainly sounds intriguing Ann. I rarely read book reviews but i'm glad I did with this one. I have heard of Penelope Lively but never read any of her work...I have to change that. Very well written hub.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 06, 2013:

Thank you, Colleen, glad you enjoyed it. I appreciate you dropping by to read and comment.

Colleen Swan from County Durham on December 06, 2013:

An interesting and nicely constructed review. Nice hub

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 06, 2013:

always exploring: Well, thank you for such a wonderful comment and compliment; to be put in the same category as bill too is praise indeed. I'm glad you enjoyed the review and hope that you enjoy the book. Good to see you. Ann

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on December 06, 2013:

You certainly sold me on this book. Wonderful review! How very clever of Kath to leave an envelope with instructions to destroy, who would do that?Positively no one! Your writing is excellent. I dream of the day when i can put words together like you and Bill. Thank you for sharing. Voted up and away...

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 06, 2013:

tobusiness: Thank you so very much for your lovely comments. I'm glad I've 'piqued' your curiosity! Hope you enjoy the read. Ann

Jo Alexis-Hagues from Lincolnshire, U.K on December 06, 2013:

An interesting review! I loved how you wrote this, the style is different and very effective. You've certainly piqued my curiosity, now I'll have read the book. :)

Excellent work.

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 06, 2013:

Thank you, Jaye. I'm delighted at your comment about keeping it at the 'intriguing level'; that's the best compliment for me because that's what a review should do - entice someone to read! I hope if you get round to reading it that you enjoy it.

Thank you so much for the votes, too. Ann

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 06, 2013:

I'm glad you liked the review, Mel. However, Penelope Lively is not by any means a new author. She's been writing children and adult stories successfully for many years. I have a theory that those who can write for children can write easily for adults and it appears to be true! I appreciate you dropping by and thanks for the comment. Ann

Ann Carr (author) from SW England on December 06, 2013:

Thanks, bill. I had you in mind when I mentioned the opening sentence, remembering one of your hubs! I hope you enjoy the read.

I'm feeling much better today, thanks, and I hope you & yours have a good weekend. Ann

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on December 05, 2013:

This is the type of book review I like, Ann--one with just enough intriguing information to snare my attention and make me believe it would be a good read. It's surprising how many reviewers provide so much of the plot I don't feel any need to read the book...especially if there are "spoilers" of the main events or resolution. Thanks for keeping this one at the intriguing level.

Voted Up, Useful and Interesting.


Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on December 05, 2013:

I love hubs like this that make me aware of new authors. I'll have to keep this one in mind. Great review!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on December 05, 2013:

Wonderful review, Ann. I agree with you about the opening sentence. That is a grabber for sure, one that insures the reader will continue on. I have to learn to write like that.

Thanks for the review. I will put it on my wish list for the coming new year.

I hope you had a nice evening and that you are feeling better.


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