I've just read The Photograph, by Penelope Lively, a perfect small novel, pretty close to perfect anyway, the story of a perfectly beautiful and charming woman whose life, in spite or perhaps because of this, is not a happy one.
In the back of a cupboard, successful 60ish academic Glyn Peters finds a photo in a sealed enveloped marked 'do not open', so of course he does. The photo shows his dead wife, Kath, holding hands with her brother-in-law and comes with a scrawled note to 'my love'. A cliched start, almost, to a story wherein Glyn sets out, with the scholarly researcher's thoroughness, to investigate this secret infidelity: a tour of their mutual friends and family, each of whom has a chapter, remembering what they knew of Kath, who turns out to have been rather far from what she seemed.
Nothing very original here, but it's entrancingly well executed, gripping as a thriller. In fact it is a thriller, circling closer and closer to how Kath lived and why she died. The characterisation is fabulous: each of these people has feet of clay, and is not less engaging for that, but more. The writing is fabulous too. It's the sentence structure and the rhythm, I think.
So it's written in the present tense, of which I am emphatically not a fan, often returning books to the shelf in the bookshop when I find this. The first time I noticed was on page 188. It hadn't obtruded because it was so natural, written in the present because this is in the present, the ongoing moment of somebody thinking, remembering, realising, the reader in the moment with them, waiting to see what this one hasn't remembered yet, but might remember any time now.
" And so, on this day so much later, when Mary watches Glyn get out of his car, look around, open the gate and walk up her garden path, she sees a man who carries baggage - the baggage of all those years. He is freighted with her own initial mistrust - the mistrust which gave way eventually to tolerance. She sees a man she once disliked, and then got used to, because there was no alternative and he was by then an unavoidable feature of her friend's life. She sees a man she sparred with, on occasion, a man she thought too ready with an opinion, a man inclined to talk everyone else into the ground. She is startled to see that this man is now an older man, and then remembers her own grizzled head. All the same, he is palpably the same man, and all around him there float other times, and other people. He brings Kath; he brings Kath's voice saying Glyn this, Glyn that, Glyn's away for a few days so I'm going to play hookey and come to see you, right? He brings that house of theirs in Melchester which Mary seldom visited and always found in some way a house without a heart, a house in which two people came and went but in which they somehow did not live... "
The Photograph is a remorselessly clever, sharp-eyed book about some rather common ways of being limited and selfish, but more kind than cruel, more sad than cynical, and very affecting. This was superb. This was why I don't think I'll ever abandon reading fiction.