Penelope Lively’s Consequences starts out, so it seems, as yet another novel of England during World War II. In the late 1930s, Lorna gets in one of many arguments with her mother—she doesn’t share the goals her upper-middle class family has set for her and wants some independence. She runs out and takes a walk through St. James park, and happens to sit down on the same bench as Matt Faraday, an engraver making preliminary sketches of ducks. A smile leads to small talk which leads to an engagement and, to Lorna’s parents’ horror, marriage.
But Lorna is thrilled to be with Matt, even if it means living in a tiny cottage in Somerset with no electricity or running water. Matt has a promising future as an artist and the young couple see their newly married life as a rustic idyll rather than the hard work it must be. Soon baby Molly is born and the rumblings of war are nearing. When Matt is called up, we expect tragedy—but it comes so fast. The idyll is abruptly over. Lorna, of course, is strong enough to go on from here, and she does in the most perfect way, considering the circumstances. But too soon we will have left Lorna and Matt’s story altogether in favor of the next generation.
Consequences spans three generations of women in this way—Lorna, Molly, and Molly’s daughter Ruth. Lorna is the fullest, most interesting of the bunch, and the family history goes a bit downhill from there. But the three women are constantly left examining their lives from this perspective of consequences—sit on the right park bench, find a husband. Let events carry you where they might and suddenly you wake up to your own life, a thing of your creation and yet not. As Molly observes, contemplating her decision to have a child:
Years after, she would think that you do not so much make decisions, as stumble in a certain direction because something tells you that that is the way you must go. You are impelled, by some confusion of instinct, will, and blind faith. Reason does not much come into it. If reason ruled, you would not leave home in the morning, lest you stepped under a bus; you would not try, for fear of failure; you would not love, in case it hurt.
Years later, that time has lost all chronology; it is a handful of scenes that replay from time to time.
Unfortunately a serious misunderstanding of reason and risk aversion mars a passage that otherwise captures perfectly the way I’ve made some of my more dramatic decisions—or how I’ve let them make themselves, perhaps. And this is the way the Faraday women live, with varying degrees of success and happiness.
While the ending is telegraphed and somewhat predictable—a small mistake of Lorna’s leads to pleasant consequences decades later for her granddaughter Ruth—I wasn’t even bothered by its sentimentalism. It seemed cute and touching rather than sappy. Ruth and, to a lesser extent, Molly, were never as appealing or as interesting as Lorna, but they seem to recognize this themselves. Ruth, especially, becomes interested in the larger-than-life love story that began her family and is deeply affected by first finding her grandfather’s final resting place and later by her fortuitous discovery at the cottage, bringing herself after more than 50 years a taste more of the idyllic happiness that once existed there for her family. In some ways I wish this had been more of a typical WWII-in-Britain novel—after Matt and Lorna’s story, the most evocative and visceral of the three, none of the others felt quite as effective—but as far as “women through the generations” go this was an unvarnished, affirming story.
Sometimes I find it hard to get past my own prejudices enough to be truly “inside” a story and get all the potential benefits of the suspension of disbelief that entails. This happened in my reading of Penelope Lively’s story “In Olden Times,” in which a working mother of two has a day where everything goes wrong.
Marion is a registered nurse who works nights, spending only precious minutes daily with her accountant husband. Their two small daughters keep her running around nearly all day—after finishing work in the morning, she must bring them to school, get in a quick nap, then do the day’s chores before picking them up, taking care of them, and handling supper. It’s hard to see how she sleeps more than four hours a day, but I suppose she makes up a more reasonable amount napping.
One of Marion’s regular patients spends a lot of time lecturing her on how much better things were “in olden times,” when women could stay at home and take care of the children and people didn’t rush around so much. In olden times people were more easily satisfied, and lived simpler, happier lives. Of course, Marion’s family struggles to make ends meet with two incomes, and someone of her socioeconomic level would have had excruciatingly difficult work and an even harder life—as her daughters, who are studying the Victorian era, put it, “If you’d been born then you might have worked down a coalmine, Mum, pulling a cart like horses did.” In any case she wouldn’t have had the convenience of a washer and dryer or electric sewing machine, three devices she is quite dependent on.
Unfortunately, instead of sympathizing with Marion, or simply enjoying the contrast of her patient’s strictures against the backdrop of real working life, I was stuck thinking the whole time: why on earth does this woman have two children? Clearly Marion and her husband can’t afford a family of this size; she is worked to exhaustion to care for them and they seem to bring only pain, never pleasure. Their every appearance in the story only annoyed me, I wanted to strike them from the page and ease Marion’s life, which seemed so pointlessly difficult on their account. I’m sure I should be coming at the thing from some entirely different angle, but I just couldn’t see past it. I had a similar problem reading When We Were Romans, I suppose, and of course ages ago when I read Atonement I wanted to strangle Briony. Maybe I should stay away from fiction involving children.
The title story in the Penelope Lively collection I read this week, The Five Thousand and One Nights, is certainly the most playful of the bunch. What happens to Scheherazade and the Sultan after the thousand and one nights? The Sultan is
Tamed by narrative. The sting drawn; the fires banked. He had revised his opinion of women. He loved his wife. He took a benign interest in his children. He hadn’t beheaded anyone in years. He was running to fat and looked rather less like Omar Sharif than he had done in his heyday. He drank a lot of coffee and watched videos and paid desultory attention to the family oil business.
And Scheherazade? She has continued her nightly narration throughout each night of their marriage, now numbering in the many thousands (the Sultan has lost count). But her stories have changed over the years, and the Sultan now finds himself nodding off in the middle.
The trouble was that the stories had got longer and longer and, in the Sultan’s opinion, a great deal less gripping. The backgrounds had become more and more exotic and the pace, in his view, slower and slower. The characters bewildered him: all these Elizas and Janes and Catherines. They talked and talked and nothing much happened except that occasionally there was a restrained social event or someone got married.
The poor Sultan finds himself asking Scheherazade where Devonshire is, and tells her sister that he particularly didn’t appreciate a story “that went on for weeks about people shouting at each other in some place called Yorkshire where they have the most appalling weather.” As the storyteller makes her way from Jane Austen through Emily Brontë to Virginia Woolf, the Sultan loses patience and the sister, Dinarzade, convinces him to try his own hand at narrating in the evenings.
And what does the Sultan narrate? Romances, adventures, westerns, science fiction. Scheherazade is unimpressed, but as the Sultan explains to Dinarzade, “Get the action right and the rest follows. You know—shooting things and bullfighting and catching enormous fish and getting drunk and behaving with amazing nonchalance when fatally wounded. I’ve got some terrific ideas. Marvellous stuff. Can’t fail.” And of course, the only love is doomed love.
Luckily there is a sweet and happy ending for the troubled couple that takes them right back to their roots.