A HOUSE UNLOCKED by Penelope Lively


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A memoir from novelist Lively (Spiderweb, 1999, etc.) in which the personal opens onto the greater social vista with the help of grace and a gimlet eye, as nearly an entire century reverberates inside an English country house.

Lively’s family purchased the Somerset home in 1923, and she uses its rooms and furnishings like one of “the mnemonic devices of the classical and medieval art of memory,” bearing “witness to the public traumas of a century.” The elements of the house can be emotive trappings as simple as a picnic rug recalling a moorland lunch or weightier signifiers of social change and historical clamor. Lively allows the past to be touched but never obscured by a sepia haze in prose that is remarkably comfortable, setting the stage as cozily as a panful of embers warming a winter bed, and rendering contrasting episodes like the Blitz all the more melancholy or horrible. She ranges freely, from the opening of the country’s west by the Great Western Railway to the importance the Romantic poets and, gradually, an entire nation placed on walking, to church-touring with her grandmother (“and thus learned about iconoclasm and had a sudden startling insight into the power of prejudice and conviction and coercion”), turning from the garden as a veritable botanical marvel—ancient and compelling—to pastoral idealism, fox-hunting, and relations (or the lack thereof) between the sexes and between children and adults in Edwardian England. The best moments come when strangers arrive at the house and leave their mark as children evacuated from the Blitz, evoking the social reforms the evacuation sparked, or as political refugees from Russia, with all the baggage of simply being Russian during the first half of the 20th century.

As Lively shapes the greater social picture, she keeps it invested with a personal stake, making her world a deeply lived experience.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-8021-1712-0
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2002


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