By Penelope Lively
Viking. 231 pp. $24.95
"A dead woman bites not," said Patrick, the sixth Lord Gray, when advocating the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Poor, misguided man. He failed to reckon with a fact known to writers of ghost stories from Shakespeare to Stephen King -- namely, that the dead can bite back and often bite hard. This is something the treacherous Gray realized, perhaps, when sitting in prison after Mary's demise, condemned to death himself for treason.
In The Photograph, Penelope Lively's new literary ghost story, we have a modern version of the dangerous deceased, but the posthumous mischief she perpetrates is of a very different sort from Mary's. For Kath Peters was, in life, no one's enemy. Blessed with "maverick and mesmerizing" good looks, she was universally adored -- the kind of woman whose entry into a room was "like a sudden shaft of light . . . all zest and animation." She was, in short, a joy to everyone who knew her. "There is nobody," as one of her admirers puts it, "but nobody, less likely to be . . . dead."
But dead she is, and under circumstances that Lively avoids elucidating for much of the book. Instead, she focuses on the living Kaths that populate the memory of those who loved her -- Glyn Peters, her husband, a prominent landscape historian; Elaine Hammond, her sister, an overworked garden designer; and Polly Hammond, Elaine's daughter, just starting a career in Web design. For these busy, purposeful people, Kath survives as an intermittent mental presence, a half-remembered voice that intrudes into their heads at odd moments, carrying with it a faint note of nostalgia and inchoate regret.
Kath most definitely is not a disruptive force in their lives -- until the appearance of the photograph of the novel's title. Glyn finds it in a cluttered cabinet, years after her death. In the photo, Kath is pictured with some friends, probably on an excursion taken when Glyn was away. But there is something very wrong with this picture:
"Glyn brings the photo closer to his face for more minute inspection. And then he sees. He sees the hands. He sees that Kath and this someone, this man, have their hands closely entwined."
The man, in other words, is quite obviously Kath's lover. Worse still, he is recognizable in the photo as Nick Hammond, Kath's sweet but feckless brother-in-law.
This discovery proves devastating for Glyn. A man whose entire career has been based on reconstructing the historical past with "detachment and the balanced view," he now finds that his personal history is suddenly, fundamentally, suspect. The photograph has put a lethal spin on all the assumed facts of his life. So he sets out to discover whatever he can about this new Kath, who is now "infused with something dark and unwelcome." And in the process of his research, he redefines the numerous Kaths who exist in the minds of everyone else in the book.
It is an ingenious premise for a novel, and Penelope Lively -- the British author of 15 previous works of fiction, including the Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger -- spins it out with expert skill. She has a smoothly versatile style of storytelling, drifting in and out of her characters' heads, weaving action, reminiscence and interior monologue into a seamless whole. As in her past work, she takes the occasion of telling a story to play with the conventions of narrative itself. Here she adopts Glyn's professional modus operandi as her own, turning her book into a kind of forensic historian's investigation of the past. Documents are examined, localities visited, expert opinions sought -- all in an attempt to get at the truth of who Kath really was.
What Glyn and the others discover, of course, is that the Kath they knew was largely a product of their own solipsistic preoccupations. But while their perceptions of Kath may have been delusory, their love for her was real, and Lively succeeds in giving the belated chastisement of her characters some real emotional weight. If there is in The Photograph, as in several of Lively's recent novels, a slight hint of brisk professionalism -- the sense of an extraordinarily skilled writer merely playing out a clever idea -- it may be evident only to those of us who have been reading her faithfully for years. I suspect that once this old hand finds a subject that fills her with all of the passionate enthusiasm of a rank beginner, she'll produce another work on the order of Moon Tiger. In the meantime, though, we have The Photograph to ease the waiting. •
Gary Krist is the author, most recently, of the novel "Extravagance."