A couple of years ago I did a creative writing course at my local university in preparation for the launch of me new ‘career’ as a writer. One of the things that began to irritate me a little, having spent most of my working life taking practice-focused training courses, was the academic slant to the course (yeah, I know – what did I expect!).
I could understand studying Chekhov and Mansfield if I were taking an Eng Lit course, and I could certainly understand why we needed to be aware of the innovations these writers introduced a century or more ago. But I wanted to study the techniques used by modern writers, authors who were at the top of their game now.
Modern masters such as Penelope Lively, in fact. Lively has been writing for thirty years , and she has produced around forty novels. A Booker Prize winner in 1987, there's no doubt she is a writer to learn from.
So I began reading her latest novel, Consequences, from a writer’s point of view, trying to learn her techniques and how her effects were achieved. From that point of view, I thought her new novel was a master class. In fact, it was so good I couldn’t help forgetting myself, and just reading the book as a reader. I found it completely enthralling.
Consequences is the story of three generations of women, beginning in the 1930s with Lorna, then focusing on Molly in the post-war years and finally rounding off the tale with up-to-date Ruth. But this is no ‘family saga’ novel. The book is about the way time changes perceptions, and about memory and loss.
Lively paints with quick, broad brushstrokes, then suddenly paints in a detail that brings her characters and their emotions to life on the page. The history of seventy years is sketched out in less than 300 pages, and yet you feel you know the principal characters intimately. Lively is a master at telling the reader more by writing less.
There’s a heavy tension hanging over the first part of the novel. Wealthy debutante Lorna’s love affair with struggling artist Matt is brilliantly drawn. The young lovers run off to Somerset to live in Arcadian bliss and a poverty that Lively carefully describes yet still seems idyllic. Baby Molly is born, and you know that in a few years the perfect life of Lorna and her little family will be shattered by war. With the benefit of what we know now, the events are predictable. But Lively’s technical skill in telling the tale makes that predictability acutely poignant.
Molly’s leg of the tale is concerned with post-war austerity and the dawning of the sixties. Everyone is artistic and bohemian, and they are all very nice. When Ruth comes along I thought she might rebel, and for a while it does indeed seem that she will succumb to the lucrative allure of Thatcher’s Britain. She marries, and her husband Peter is the one character we find it hard to sympathise with.
Lively is a master of plotting and structure, and this story is satisfyingly symmetrical. We end up pretty much where we began, and it feels like we have come home ourselves.
This is a novel to be savoured.