"Clare's grandfather brought back a shield from New Guinea seventy years ago, and now Clare's dreams are haunted by images of New Guinea. It is up to her to lay the ghost of an encounter between a Victorian anthropologist and a Stone Age New Guinea tribe to rest."
Penelope Lively has proved herself during her career as being one of the few authors who can appeal crossgenerationally (Roald Dahl is another famous example), not only by writing several books that were distinctly for adults (e.g. Moon Tiger) and several that were distinctly for children (e.g. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe), and being successful in both arenas, but also by writing books that appeal simultaneously to adults and children alike. A book to fall into this latter category is The House in Norham Gardens; while it may appeal more narrowly to older children (age 10+), it equally has many appealing aspects for adults, with its various historical settings and serious characters.
Lively interweaves the historically academic yet slightly wilder and more countrified setting of North Oxford with aspects of New Guinean history, twinning them via an artefact that seems set to change the protagonist's outlook on life for good, combined with the timely appearance of a new lodger. The author tames this at times complex historical setup (in addition to which the narrative itself is non-chronological) by reining in the rest, keeping the description blissfully simple (while still eloquent) and keeping character numbers and interactions down. The images of Norham Gardens leapt to life with ease, but it should be noted at this stage that my perceptions are biased given that I spent a year of my life living on this North Oxford street (and hence my attraction to this particular novella). Whether the house and road would come to life with such ease for others is arguably a different question.
Dream figures heavily in the story as Clare's subconscious concerns rise to the fore, and Lively does not keep readers hanging, instead allowing the novella to culminate in a satisfying climax, the reader feeling that all has been resolved. While the author has written a few series for children, I do not feel that a sequel (or indeed a prequel) would work well in this case: we have seen Clare through one of the most significant historical and emotional learning curves of her life, and anything else would seem a letdown in comparison. Penelope Lively's talents in the eccentric and the wonderful, in the borders between illusion and reality, are exploited in this novella to their fullest, making a delightful read for children and their parents.
Other works by Penelope Lively (selected)
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973)
The Voyage of QV66 (1978)
Dragon Trouble (1984)
Good Night, Sleep Tight (1995)
The Road to Lichfield (1977)
Treasures of Time (1979)
According to Mark (1984)
Moon Tiger (1987)
City of the Mind (1991)
The Photograph (2003)
Family Album (2009)
First three Chapters....
8 years ago