Friday, 20 March 2020

THE HOUSE IN NORHAM GARDENS by Penelope Lively Reviewed by Ann Turnbull


   I love Penelope Lively's books, and this one is a particular favourite. First published in the 1970s, it's a compelling story with a subtle undercurrent of magic.

   The story is set in a big old house in Oxford during a week or so of snow. In the house live fourteen-year-old Clare Mayfield and her two aunts, Anne and Susan, aged seventy-eight and eighty. The aunts, though loving and erudite, are not capable of running a home, and the household finances are managed by Clare and Mrs Hedges, the domestic help. Unlike the aunts, these two are aware of the shortage of money and unpaid bills, and have found a lodger, Maureen.

   Away from such grown-up concerns, Clare spends time in the attic, unearthing old clothes and other reminders of her ancestors. She notices a strange and unsettling object: a tamburan - a kind of shield with an image painted on it that suggests a face. She begins to have dreams in which she meets tribal people who seem to be missing the tamburan and want it back. These dreams become increasingly urgent and frightening.

   Clare, at fourteen, is on the cusp of adult life. Although the action takes place only over a week or so, for her it's a time of growth and change. The snow persists throughout the story, an enclosing and  confining presence that keeps Clare focused on her disturbing dreams. She visits the Pitt Rivers museum, where she sees another tamburan similar to the one in the attic, and meets Nigerian student John Sempebwa. John helps her in her search for answers and also becomes a second lodger at the aunts' house.

   This is not an eventful story. It's about relationships, growing up, and contacts between people across both space and time. There is a subtle undercurrent of magic. Clare is in the limbo of  adolescence, waiting for her adult life to begin, while the tribal people are losing their ancestral links and also moving towards a new life. In the short time span of this story, deep changes and understandings take place. 



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