Monday, 11 January 2010

A house unlocked (Lively)

I picked up A house unlocked in the charity shop just before Christmas because I have enjoyed a number of novels by Lively, and this looked like a fascinating voyage into social history.

The book is about the history of Golsoncott, the house owned by Lively's grandparents in Somerset, which Lively often used to visit. Taking as a starting point various objects that she remembered seeing around the house, Lively then in later life decided to piece together the history of the family and the house. Through a sampler, which features the pictures of six evacuees, we learn about the role of the house in the Blitz. The potted meat jars remind Lively of helping to do flower arrangements in the church, and we learn about the importance of religion and the social hierarchy of the church to her family. She refers a lot to literature, both books that she read there, and ones which places the experiences being described into context.

Lively concludes:
"This book has tried to use the furnishing of a house as a mnemonic system. I have always been excited and intrigued by the silent eloquence of the physical world - past events locked nto the landscape or lurking in city streets. Every house tells a story. Golsoncott's story spans much of the century; it is personal, but also public. Historical change determined how life was lived there; objects can be made to bear witness. In the process, a maverick form of social comment seems to emerge - the house becomes a secret mirror of the times, arbitrary and selective, reflecting shafts of light from unexpected directions"

I thought this was a wonderful book. It combines twentieth century social history, focussing particularly on the domestic, with the stories of the lives of Lively's family, and Lively's own reminiscences. Lively writes well, and the book is entirely captivating.

There is a very good review of the book here.


  1. This is a definite 'must read' for me Verity! I've never heard of this title before so thank you so much for writing about it. I'm going to check our library catalogue straight away...well, after I read the other review.

  2. I think you would enjoy this Darlene :)

  3. This sounds like a very intersting book, thanks for the review!

  4. This sounds like an interesting and unusual book, its also reminded me I need to dig out Julie Myerson's 'Home' which is another book about a house and its soical history!

  5. I have only ever read Moon Tiger by Lively and enjoyed it; it won the Booker and I thought it was beautifully-written and quite haunting. She seems to effectively use her own background as a springboard for her novels.

  6. Penelope Lively is one of my favourite authors & I loved this book. She also wrote a memoir of her childhood in Egypt, Oleander, Jacaranda which is a great read. I love the way her novels use time as a metaphor for just about everything. She uses history beautifully as well.

  7. Penelope Lively is an intriguing author, and I would warmly recommend her to all of you.

    Simon - I did enjoy "Home" very much.

  8. Have you read " a stitch in time"? I read it as a kid...but rereading a good few years later...I enjoyed it much more


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