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Mikeharvey

'The House in Norham Gardens' by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively's 'The House in Norham Gardens' (1974) is a novel for children but I'm sure would be enjoyed by many adult readers. It's about Clare, a 14-year old schoolgirl, living with two aged aunts in a rambling Victorian house in North Oxford. The aunts have had a life involved with education, left-wing politics (Clare finds old letters from Beatrice and Sidney Webb) and spend their lives in the library reading. Clare's great-grandfather was an anthroplogist and the attic is filled with objects from his time in Borneo.  Among these is a strangely-painted shield which fascinates Clare. This shield is the mainspring of the novel's action, It begins to obsess Clare and affect her dreams, her feelings about life and the passage of time, the differences between people and races, her underlying security.  Not a lot happens dramatically in this book but there's a great deal going on under the surface.  Lively describes in great and absorbing detail Clare's day-to-day life at school, her relationship with her aunts, with a black African student and other friends.  Against this background we follow Clare's growing awareness of the complications of everyday life and change.  This is a beautifully written and subtle book which doesn't write down to its juvenile audience in the slightest.  I'm not sure which particular age group PL aimed this uncompromising book at. Probably herself at 14.

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