Review — “Judgement Day” — Penelope Lively

Judgement DayJudgement Day by Penelope Lively

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my first Penelope Lively novel. Her name on spines has followed me around bookshops for the best part of my reading life. But in my drive to read more women authors, I found a couple of Lively’s second-hand, and thought I’d give them a go. She is a prolific author, and the first two purchases were pretty much pot-luck. Turns out that Moon Tiger, the first of the two I bought, was a Booker prize winner. However, I began my Lively journey with the slightly slimmer Judgement Day.

Judgement Day is story set around a church. That might make it sound like some kind of story about religion or belief, but it’s not really about that, although those topics are touched on. We meet the people involved in the church, but not all of them are religious. They are the members of a fund-raising committee — the old church is in need of repair. It is through this committee that various inhabitants of the town meet. There are also other characters who are not part of the committee and not interested in the church who nonetheless interact with the central characters and add colour and motivation to the plot.

The central characters are, for me at least, Ruth, the atheist with an interest in church architecture; the ineffectual and doubting vicar, George; the church Warden and veteran of World War 2, Sydney; and Martin, the troubled child of warring parents who lives next door to Sydney.

The story is told from various viewpoints, first one character and then another. Lively chops the viewpoints around quite quickly, with perhaps half a page devoted to one voice, then a page or two to another. Changes in viewpoint are clearly signposted, so the story is easy to follow, and each voice is distinct enough, because of their internal dialog or concerns, to keep the characters straight.

The novel follows the characters as they interact – through the fund-raising committee, or because they are neighbours, or because their children play together. Even though what happens might be considered mundane, still I wanted to know what was happening, what the result of these relationships would be. Because it is a novel, of limited duration, you know there will be a pay-off, a crisis. But how? And what? Why the title? What is, when is, judgement day? To reveal that would be to write a spoiler.

Suffice to say that a novel I thought would be about one relationship was very much about another. And ultimately, it is very sad book. You begin to see a glimmer of hope, changes occurring, a blossoming, perhaps. But that is cut short. And you can see and feel sad lives stretching out beyond the end of the book.

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