Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time by Penelope Lively

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Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time by Penelope Lively

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: From the Booker Prize-winning novelist, a somewhat scattered meditation on old age and the workings of memory. Tracing a random path through her personal library of reading, experiences and possessions, she ponders whether one remains the same person all through a long life.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Fig Tree
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0241146385

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Now aged 80, Penelope Lively, the Booker Prize-winning author of twenty works of fiction including Moon Tiger (1987) and How It All Began (2011), is increasingly conscious of death approaching. It may be true that, as concluded in Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes, 'we cannot truly savour life without a regular awareness of extinction', but this memoir is less a memento mori than an agreeably scattered tour through Lively's life and times.

She begins by evaluating the concept of 'old age', a designation that is relative across cultures and centuries. For instance, Neolithic skeletons have shown even teenagers suffering from arthritis, and a Ugandan tribe facing starvation abandoned both children and the 'old' – that is, anyone aged 40 or over. As a modern demographic, however, 'the elderly' form a powerful body. More of us are living longer than ever; nearly a third of today's children might see 100.

These statistics are both encouraging and slightly alarming; to Lively, humans are as disposable as ever, but there is still a certain cruelty to the fact that we wear out before our time. Infirmity – in her case, breast cancer, a bad back and loss of balance – diminishes enjoyment of those reputed 'golden years'. She continues to take delight in her varied reading, but mourns the lost pleasures of acquisitiveness and travel (for which she has no desire), and gardening (for which she has no physical ability).

Lively also resents the flattening of personality that accompanies age; 'stereotypes of old age run from the smiling old dear to the grumbling curmudgeon', denying the persistence of individual variety. For an author, however, there may be advantages to being typecast and overlooked. 'We are not exactly invisible, but we are not noticed, which I rather like; it leaves me free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch.' The role of unobtrusive observer allows her to reconstruct lives she encounters as stories with a beginning and end.

Memory does not always adopt the tidy, chronological nature of stories, however. Rather, 'Autobiographical memory is random, non-sequential, capricious' – all qualities she seeks to replicate in her personal reminiscences. Some unexpected memories have remained with her: the exact layout of the garden at her childhood home in Egypt; snippets of French and shorthand. Curiously enough, what she recorded in her diaries at the time does not correspond in any way to the flashes of memory she still retains.

Her tour through the decades takes in meaningful books she has read, arbitrary snatches of memory and an introduction to 'six things' – a selection of prized possessions including the leaping fish potsherd from Cairo and Blue Lias ammonites of the title. Like the archaeologist manquée she has always considered herself, Lively measures out her life through books and other artefacts.

Though Lively's recollections make for a pleasant read, do not expect them to add up a cohesive memoir – or you will surely find yourself disappointed. Lively has already published two works of autobiography: Oleander, Jacaranda (1994) is a more standard remembrance of childhood; A House Unlocked (2001) is, like this one, 'a sort of material memoir', touring through history by way of her family's country home.

Unfortunately, here, the 'six things' section seems almost like an unnecessary appendix, not well connected to what has gone before. Had Lively employed each object as a theme-setting chapter opener instead, the artefacts might have seemed more essential to the book's structure. The long reflection on her mixed feelings about the Suez crisis becomes tedious, and, though I agree that books make us who we are, her lists of past reading (plus the peculiar interlude discussing myopia and its causes) do not feel entirely relevant. In my view, Lively never answers one of her chief starting questions: 'Can I have become a different being while I still remain myself?'

'Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did.' Lively rescues some personal relics from the encroaching darkness, but leaves her reader slightly frustrated by the lack of narrative fluidity – something that, as an accomplished novelist, she might have given more attention."

Further reading suggestion: For another dose of wisdom from an elder stateswoman of literature – but with a more focused approach – try Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill. The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal is a similar attempt to unearth family history through material objects.

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