Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The House In Norham Gardens: Book Discussion

Welcome to the second Scholar's Blog Book Discussion Group.

I confess that I instantly fell in love with Penelope Lively's The House in Norham Gardens when I read first read it last August, from the moment that I read the first three verses of Thomas Hardy's poem, "Old Furniture" (below) quoted on the dedication page.

The edition I have (Jane Nissen, 2005) has an interesting introduction by Philip Pullman, which I wish I could quote in full for those who don't have it. He talks about there being an invisible character who haunts much of Penelope Lively's work - that character or presence is Time. He describes Lively as "the laureate of time" and notes that "there's more awareness of the presence of the past in her work, both for children and for adults, than in that of almost any other novelist." Pullman also discusses the extraordinary atmosphere of the novel, and it was that atmosphere as much as anything else that attracted me to this tale.

Old Furniture

I know not how it may be with others
Who sit amid relics of householdry
That date from the days of their mothers' mothers,
But well I know how it is with me

I see the hands of the generations
That owned each shiny familiar thing
In play on its knobs and indentations,
And with its ancient fashioning
Still dallying:

Hands behind hands, growing paler and paler,
As in a mirror a candle-flame
Shows images of itself, each frailer
As it recedes, though the eye may frame
Its shape the same.

(The full poem is here.)

From the first page of the story, I was gripped - here are some of the things I loved about it:

1 - The houses there are quite normal. They are ordinary sizes and have ordinary chimneys and roofs and gardens with laburnum and flowering cherry. Park Town. As you go south they are growing. Getting higher and odder. By the time you get to Norham Gardens they have tottered over the edge into madness: these are not houses but flights of fancy. (p. 1)

2 - The lines The front door was not locked. Old ladies lose front door keys. (p. 2) - so practical and so typical of Clare's attitude to her elderly aunts.

3 - Clare's imaginary conversation with a person from outer space (also p. 2), which serves to explain to readers who aren't familiar with the style of British homes of earlier centuries, with their quaintly named rooms.

4 - Clare's meditation on whether or not houses should be razed once they are no longer useful, and the reference to the passing of the people who've lived in them. (p. 5)

5 - The exchange between Clare and her aunts in which they award each other grades such as "B double plus" and "Gamma plus" (p. 9). This exchange is full of their shared affection for each other, but it also demonstrates that the two old ladies are not witless.

6 - I like Lively's use of the diary entries (in chapter 6) and the way in which each chapter opens with an account of the lives of the tribe to whom the tamburan belonged.

7 - I thought it interesting that Lively used dreams to show the way in which the tamburan, and its link to the past, affects Clare.

For those of you without the Jane Nissen edition of Lively's book, the tamburan is illustrated on the cover photo (see above), behind the book title (below):

So what did you think of this book? What did you like? What did you feel didn't work? And would it encourage you to read more of Lively's children's fiction?


Little Willow said...

I liked the writing and the story to a point. The overall story was not quite as supernatural as I would have liked. I thought the main character's dreams and nightmares would lead to time travel or prophecies and ancient evils. I was disappointed when they did not, as I enjoy stories of that nature.

I wanted there to be more of a threat, more research done, more of a climax.

I liked the characters and their interactions. The household felt comfortable. I enjoyed the banter between the great aunts, sisters who knew each other well and who took care of each other.

I enjoyed the poem Old Furniture by Thomas Hardy which started the story.

Michele said...

I'm sorry that it didn't meet your expectations in terms of the supernatural. I guess I was already familiar with Lively's style and method of writing such books (having read several others before I came to Norham Gardens), so I knew what sort of thing to expect...

Liz B said...

I'll post more later this weekend. But for now, I wouldn't have read this book without the book discussion; because my library didn't own it so this discussion pushed me to buy it and I'm glad I did.

What I liked: there is some wonderful language here. I found myself copying down a lot of quotes.

The relationship between Clare & the aunts was also very good; and I liked the fears that were shown in a very subtle manner. Subtle is a good word for this; because I also think that I wouldn't call this supernatural at all. That the dreams were just her own fears and concerns about change and the future materialized.

Michele said...

Liz, you're quite right, "subtle" is the word that best describes Lively's children's fiction (I've not read any of her adult fiction as yet). There is nothing overt about her story telling. I'm glad that you found lots you wanted to quote - I did too, but for the sake of clarity, I didn't quote too much here.

Anonymous said...

I found this a very enjoyable book to read. Clare has a very special relationship with her aunts but needless to say has a very real fear of losing them. I think that it is because of her empathy with the old house that Clare picks up the fears and feelings from the old tribe and realises that it is too late to return their property to them.
A very readable book, I will be looking out for more Penelope Lively books!

Michele said...

I'm glad that you enjoyed it - and that you want to read more of Lively's books.

Catherine Uible Morgan said...

Like Liz B, I had to scramble to get this book -- although ILL was my method of choice -- and I just finished it today, forcing myself not to look at any comments until I was finished. Now I'm wishing I had been able to borrow the newer version to read Pullman's thoughts on time.

Clare's thought on the passing of time and how she often felt stuck was what I enjoyed most about the book, I especially liked on page 90 where Clare thinks: "It's [time] like being on a train, and seeing a lovely station with flowers and cows in long grass, and not being able to get off at it." And the ending sentences of the book where Clare realizes how she can save particular moments: "She looked at them, intently, at their faces and their hands and the shape of them. I'm learning them by heart, she thought, that's what I'm doing, that's all I can do, only that."

Like Little Willow, I thought there might be more of the supernatural, but being a person ground firmly in reality myself, I was easily able to identify with Clare and felt the minimal information about New Guinea still managed to convey the changes that finally arrived in New Guinea.

I enjoyed the addition of John, the African man, but thought about how dated that made the book, a mere 30+ years later, when one would not dream of bringing a strange man home. Maureen's purpose as a character in the book, seemed vague, except when Clare discusses her with John.

All in all I enjoyed it immensely. Here's a quote from Lively I got from a website (http://www.postcolonialweb.org/uk/lively/livelybio.html) : "Perhaps what I'm interested in..is the operation of memory, the ways in which the physical world is composed of memory, the ways in which it's an encumbrance and the ways in which it's an asset... I can hardly decide which it is. But it's something that I'm constantly aware of and constantly seeing new ways of exploring fictionally."

Thanks, Michele!

Michele said...

Catherine, thanks for participating ! I'm glad that you enjoyed the book as much as you clearly did.

I also liked the reference to passing a station at which one cannot get out - it reminded me rather of Edward Thomas' poem Adlestrop.

Gail Gauthier said...

I am more than half finished reading the book. I'm avoiding reading any of the comments until I'm done.

Michele said...

That's great Gail - I look forward to your thoughts !

Gail Gauthier said...

Well, I have lots of thoughts.

First, I want to say that I enjoy this kind of book. It's what I think of as an English woman's book--elegantly written and about the details of life that men often do not write about. I have read one of Lively's books for adults--Moon Tiger--which is about an elderly woman recalling her life. That same time thing that Michelle tells us Pullman talks of is there, too. I remember little about the book except that I read it soon after I read The English Patient. I felt it covered some similar ground--recalling a lover during World War II but was far, far better. It was published some time before The English Patient.

I read The House In Norham Gardens book under strange circumstances. Last weekend I had a lengthy discussion with my son regarding literary vs. popular fiction. Then, via Liz B.'s blog, as a matter of fact, I stumbled upon a blog that discussed literary and "commercial" fiction saying that literary fiction's plot is below the surface while commercial fiction's plot is above the surface. The plot of a literary work is often all within a character. Then I started reading Norham Gardens.

That's what I think is going on here. Everything that truly happens, happens within Clare. This is possibly the most literary work for kids/teenagers I can recall reading. The only thing I can think of that even comes close is The Book Thief, which I don't think is as well done.

To some extent Norham Gardens reminded me of The Outcasts of Schuyler Place, though that book was very, very preachy and thinly written. But it had the child living with elderly relatives in an older house and "an issue" message.

I was afraid "Norham Gardens" was going to turn into an "issue" book--bad western imperialists robbing the culture of another people. (Not that that isn't a hundred percent true, of course.) I was very impressed when it turned out to be about something else--people growing past the need to old onto their past through material things.

I will stop here.

Michele said...

Gail, I'm glad that you enjoyed the book, and I know *exactly* what you mean about it being an "issue" book - I wondered that myself, though I'd already read a lot of Lively's children's books by that point and knew she was more subtle than many authors in that regard.

Gail Gauthier said...

I did wonder, however, about John the African student. I wasn't sure why he was necessary. Unless it was to open up the story a bit so there was a little something happening outside of Clare's head. I know he does bring a little information in and gets Clare out of the house. But why make him African?

Michele said...

I honestly don't know, unless it was to create a foil for Maureen, with him being African and male, and her being white and female...