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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Meditation On Time And Identity

The House in Norham Gardens - Penelope Lively

'The House in Norham Garden was published in 1974 and in many ways it now seems very dated, set as it is in an educational landscape of O Levels, and Latin translations and taking place against a backdrop in which black people are still something of a novelty in British society.

Its central character, fourteen year old Clare, lives in a huge, rambling old Victorian house in North Oxford with her two great aunts who were, in their time a pair of blue-stockings and who now live as much in the past as in the present. Their father, Clare's great-grandfather, was a Victorian anthropologist and the attic is filled with objects he collected during a trip to New Guinea, including a beautifully decorated shield known as a tamburan, which fulfilled a ritual function in the tribe from whom it was taken, connecting them with the spirits of their ancestors.

Clare becomes pre-occupied with the tamburan which seems to draw her back to the life of the village in which it was created. In emotionally charged dreams, which begin to intrude more and more upon her waking life, she struggles to return the shield to its rightful owners. She is only released from her obsession when she comes to accept the impossibility of preserving the past, except in memory.

It’s a beautifully written and extremely subtle book, full of meditations upon the subject of time, history, change and death but the sensibility is very adult and I feel it is much more likely to be appreciated by adults looking back upon their childhoods than by contemporary juvenile readers.