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“Prose that makes you miss your bus stop,” exclaims a reviewer from the Guardian. Pretty impressive I think, particularly since I travel by tube. Out of the Picture is a complex novel of childhood betrayal, haunting memories, loneliness and loss. The novel tells the story of Lizzie, abandoned by a father she never really knew and brought up amongst a stepfamily which she never feels a part of. Following a startling discovering concerning her step father, Peter, she moves to London but finds herself continually drawn back to her past, the family she has left and the father she is yet to find. This is Polly Samson’s first novel, although she has previously written a book of short stories (Lying in Bed) and works as a columnist for the Sunday Times. Having not read Lying in Bed and never reading the Sunday Times this is the first time I’ve read any of her work. Her writing has been likened to “Raffaella Barker, Esther Freud and Barbara Trapido” but this didn’t really help me because I haven’t read any of those authors. Hopefully you’ll have read some of them because I’m always hopeless at thinking of comparative authors when attempting to give you a flavour of the style. I would say this novel reminded me a bit of Stephen Poliakoff’s television dramas “Shooting the Past” and “Perfect Strangers”. The way in which the viewer (or, in this case, the reader) is given fragments of memories and snap shots of the past (figuratively and literally). Just as in Poliakoff’s work, photographs and portraits have great significance in Samson’s novel. Elusively capturing moments and people which you only learn more about later. This weaves a complex narrative from seemingly discordant threads. The title “Out of the Picture” seems to be a clever play on two meanings. Dark haired Lizzie feels out of place in her stepfamily of blonde Bott
icelli angels; she is seemingly out of the picture. The title also refers to the theme of photography and art which runs throughout the book. The novel is set in the beginning of the 1980’s (we know this because Lizzie is told off on the tube by a woman for smiling on the day that John Lennon has died). Lizzie is approaching her twenties. There are constant flashbacks to her teenage years growing up in Devon in the late seventies (told through flashback) and her earliest hazy childhood memories of Cornwall. The novel is peppered with contemporary references to Ziggy Stardust, boyfriends who have new permed hair like Kevin Keegan and Alberto Apple V05 shampoo (do they still make that now?). Lizzie seems to be at a very awkward stage in her life. Still trying to come to terms with feelings of dislocation from her childhood she now has to face life in London where she barely knows anyone. She feels out of place with the girls at the office where she works, with their gossip of holidays and boyfriends. She’s having an on off relationship with her boss, an older man (you wonder if Lizzie is still searching for that father figure she never had) who is incredibly selfish and at times abusive. The flat she lives in is squalid and unwelcoming. There are many moments of loneliness and isolation. Although dealing with serious incidents of abandonment, loss and betrayal, the novel is not a particularly heavy read. The prose is light and wry, for example the following description when Lizzie’s family pay their dutiful, but not entirely enjoyable, visit to Peter’s mother: “His mother opens the door and scowls at them as though they are Jehovah’s Witnesses who have deliberately interrupted The Archers and not her family at all”. Or when Lizzie is forced to do combat with the cockroaches in her rundown London flat: “Lizzie’s eyes are trained, and she is ready for combat wit
h her rolled-up newspaper when she gets up in the middle of the night. The cockroaches are invariably too quick for her, and she swears she can hear hysterical, high-pitched giggling as they scurry away and disappear under the carpet.” The writing throughout is vividly poetic and sensual, the secretary who has just come back from holiday wears her suntan “like ceremonial battledress” and has a “triumphantly sautéed face”. At the train station in Cornwall a gust of wind stirs some cherry blossom which swirls “pink confetti” at their feet. The cottage walls are painted “pale yellow, like scrambled eggs”. There’s the dreary hustle and bustle of London life (where it usually seems to be raining) contrasted with the fields of bluebells and orchards in Cornwall. This is a novel which does require concentration however. The narrative style contains frequent flashbacks and shifts in time. And although the novel is primarily written in the third person, and focuses upon Lizzie, the narrative voice does shift unexpectedly to the first person and to a different character on occasion. This frequently happens at the beginning of a new chapter. Chapter 5, for example, begins with the question “Why does this keep happening to me? They all go. They all go so suddenly. Lizzie now but it was my Mother who started the rot”. It becomes apparent that the speaker is not Lizzie but it takes a few paragraphs to realise that it is Lizzie’s mother who is speaking. The effect is somewhat disconcerting. The change in narrative voice happens most dramatically in the closing page of the book. You really don’t have a clue who is speaking until you get a hint at the end of the paragraph as to who the voice might be. So, why only three stars for my rating? Well three stars isn’t a bad rating - it’s just saying that this isn’t the best thing I’ve ever rea
d. The writing is lovely and the main character is likeable but I found my interest waned slightly in the second half of the novel. I think this is because you find answers to some of the questions which are raised in the first half of the novel and as a result lose the momentum of wanting to find out what has happened. One of the main questions, which is why did Lizzie leave her family so abruptly, didn’t have such a dramatic answer as I was expecting. I also found the ending to be a little flat. All in all this is an enjoyable read and I would recommend it. I just wouldn’t suggest you charge down to the nearest bookshop to get your hands on a copy. This is a good read but I wouldn’t say it’s a must read!
Quite unlike her fair stepsisters, Lizzie is dark and secretive: Just like your father, says her mother. But what was her father like? Photos are hidden away and overheard conversations between her mother and stepfather deepen the mystery. Events propel Lizzie alone to London to start searching.