Monday, August 21, 2006

The House at Norham Gardens - Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively's The House in Norham Gardens is a beautiful and subtle book that is a timeslip story. 14 year old Clare lives with her two great-aunts Anne and Susan, who are both around their eighth decade, but still possess lively minds. Clare's parents died when she was eight, and she and her aunts live in a rambling old house with 19 rooms in Norham Gardens, North Oxford. The house has been in the family for several generations and one day Clare discovers an ancient wood carving in the attic. It's a symbolic shield, called a tamburan or kwoi. Clare, who has a lively imagination and a ready sympathy with the past as a result of living with her elderly aunts in such an old house, soon begins to dream about the tribe from Papua New Guinea to whom it originally belonged before her anthropologist great-grandfather acquired it for his collection. She feels that the tribe want the tamburan back, and this belief begins to haunt her waking hours. This, together with the incredibly hard winter, begins to oppress Clare's spirits and she finds it hard to concentrate on her school work.

However, she befriends an African student whom she meets in the Pitt Rivers Museum when she is looking at the Mayfield (her great-grandfather's) Collection there, and when she discovers that John's room-hunting, invites him home to tea. He meets Aunt Anne and she agrees with Clare's suggestion that John move in with them since his rent will come in useful for paying bills. Which is something that not many 14 year olds would be worrying about, but Clare, whilst very fond of her aunts, is quite aware that they're not very conversant with modern matters (even decimal coinage), and so she has learnt to worry about such things.

Clare's Cousin Margaret comes for an overnight visit from Norfolk, where Clare usually spends her summer holiday, and worries a good deal about Clare, and the fact that the aunts rely on her so much. Margaret makes an oblique suggestion to Clare that she might like to come and live with them, and makes it clear that if anything happens to her aunts (ie. they die), Clare is welcome to move to Norfolk. When Margaret suggests that life in Norham Gardens must be dull for Clare, she replies:

Actually it isn't dull at all. I like this house being cold and dusty and peculiar and I think the aunts are the most interesting people I've ever known. If they are out of touch, like you said, then I think I'd rather be too, if being in touch is what I think it is. I've always liked living with them and I wouldn't like to live anywhere else. When you talk to the aunts they listen, and I listen back at them. The only thing that's wrong is that they're old, and as a matter of fact, I don't see what's wrong with that anyway. (p. 75)

This is a beautifully written book, with some fabulous descriptions, such as
The house squatted around them, vast, empty, unnecessary and indestructible. You had to be a fat busy Victorian family to expand enough to [fill it up] [...] If you did not, if you contracted into three people without such needs, then a house like this became a dinosaur, occupying too much air and ground and demanding to be fed new sinks and drainpipes and a sea of electricity. Such a house became a fossil, stranded among neighbours long since chopped up into flats and bed-sitting rooms. (p. 5)
[Clare] caught sight of her own face in the brown-framed mirror that had certainly hung there since 1920 something. What a pity mirrors couldn't remember faces they had reflected before. There should be some way of peeling back layers - finding the aunts, years ago, great-grandmother, parlour-maids, cooks... (p. 50)

Clare goes to look at the tamburan in the Pitt Rivers Museum and remembers there were three of them; she wants to see if they're the same as the one she found in the attic:
They were the same and yet not the same. The reds and the blacks and the yellows were there, and that distortion of human form, and the sense of a language so alien as to be impenetrable. (p. 60)
I found it interesting that Clare sees the tamburan as an expression of language rather than art.

1 comment:

johnrees said...

Sorting through books on a wet and meserable day, I came accross this gem. Had quite forgotten it. Bang went the sorting. Rereading after at least 15 years I'd forgotten what a beautiful and atmospherice book this is.