When Howard Beamish, aged six, picks up an ammonite from the beach, his destiny as a palaeontologist is sealed. Some 30 years later he boards a flight to Nairobi where he will be identifying specimens of his favourite Shale exotica. Meanwhile, in another part of London, Lucy has grown up, fatherless and deprived, which leads her to a career in investigative journalism. She, too, boards the flight to Nairobi. Engine trouble forces the plane to land in Callimbia, where a military coup is in full swing. Callimbia, between Egypt and Libya, is the fictional country once governed by Cleopatra's fictional sister, whose statue dominates the centre of Marsopolis.
The first part of the novel consists in alternate chapters outlining Howard and Lucy's earlier lives and giving us a history of Callimbia. These historical sections are written in an arch, flip style which is peculiarly irritating and undermines the book's structural unity. It is a relief to pass into the second half, a straightforward narrative account of the experiences of the bewildered hostages in the power of the Callimbian authorities. Contingency eventually brings their release, but others have perished. Both Howard and Lucy are forced to confront the randomness of what they persist in seeing as destiny: 'He stared for an instant at capricious fate, and then turned away, because that is all that anyone can do.'
Penelope Lively is a distinguished writer, but this is not one of her best books. Howard is an amiable enough creation, and one can more or less forgive him his beard, his anorak, his surname and his crass remarks about prayer. But Lucy is a smug, politically impeccable pain in the neck. She has a dusting of freckles, short, curly dark hair and a trim figure. I bet she has a tip-tilted nose. The love affair between these two strains one's credulity and makes one blush with shame. Remembering her V & A Pre-Raphaelite poster, Lucy sees in its centre 'not the luxuriant head of a Rossetti woman but the face of Howard Beamish. His nose, his lips, his beard, his gaze directed upon her.' The lover's conversations are strong on banality, and trimster Lucy sounds positively Blytonesque. The tensions of the hostages' situation are dissipated by over-explanatory writing and the narrative is occluded by repetition. The co-travellers also remain nebulous.
Here and there are flashes of Lively's usual elegance. There is a marvellous description of the prehistoric landmass, and an exquisite evocation of a fossil: 'the ridges of a body like dredged silver sand, or the smear of graphite that was the shining whisper of a vanished creature'. But much of the prose is turgid, at times even clumsy, and finally unsatisfying. Cleopatra's sister has no relevance at all, unless we are to suppose that in other circumstances she, too, might have become a legend. But then, in other circumstances, the tentacled hairbrush might have left a living mark on the world. And then what? Or so what?
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