BOOK REVIEW / A sudden coup in Callimbia: 'Cleopatra's Sister' - Penelope Lively: Viking, 14.99 pounds
Saturday 22 May 1993
She flirts with true invention, the novelist's art so often eschewed by modern minimalists and by those writers whose novels are just desperate trawls through the dregs of autobiography. Here her invention is Callimbia, a north African country wedged between Egypt and Libya, once governed by Cleopatra's fugitive sister, Berenice, a pied a terre of sorts for the Romans, Napoleon, and Flaubert (who, like Mark Antony before him, was ensnared by its famale attractions), a country approaching modern statehood and confronting its 'attendant perils' - military coups and despotic rule.
Lively's cast of travellers is set down in Callimbia when their plane makes a forced, unscheduled landing at Marsopolis, its capital. Caught in a coup, they are innocent strays in a game of international brinkmanship. The extremity of their dilemma forges an anxious group identity while simultaneously exaggerating and sharpening each character.
This slippery territory for the novelist - as drama awaits its melodramatic outcome and characters seem in danger of painting themselves by numbers - is made even riskier by Penelope Lively's ploy of staging a love story in its midst, a case of pheromones on the rampage. 'This is absurd,' reflects Lucy Faulkner, and it is. For the 'surge of pleasure' she feels as Howard Beamish fetches a mattress to ease her discomfort is out of kilter with the reality of their prison compound bleakness.
The only thing bigger than their burgeoning amour is the question that looms over its progress. Can this be kismet, serendipity or fate? Therein lies history's unravelling, the stuff of which 'is a conjugation so capricious that it hardly bears contemplation'. Yet dodging such contemplation, in this novel at least, is pretty impossible. Lucy Faulkner's career as a journalist stemmed from the moment she fell off a bus and had to buy a new pair of tights; just as Howard Beamish's life was imprinted, it seems, the instant he clutched his first ammonite on a beach on the Somerset coast when he was six. Both would claim to have exercised will in their fate's determination. Yet 'choice and contingency,' as Penelope Lively notes, 'form a delicate partnership'. Caprice is a palpable player in this tale.
The novel's cleverness lies in its structure. Interleaved with a potted history of Callimbia we follow from the outset the formative years of Howard and Lucy, first separately, and then merged in an unexpected narrative fission at the moment they board the ill-fated flight to Nairobi.
Already established in our imagination's eye, equipped with histories (we have suffered with Howard through his terse, abortive romance with born-again Celia; we have urged the dutiful Lucy to shake off the fecklessness of her mother), this duo is never eclipsed by the novel's sudden immersion in the suspenseful world of hostages, of semaphore rather than subtlety, of menacing brutality thrust through the barrel and butt of a gun.
Lively deals splendidly with the posse of Brits in limbo, allowing her characters to caricature themselves in their minor roles (from gung-ho to jibbering) and gently offers them as a miniature of society, a blueprint of class psychology under the zoom lens eye of fiction.
Yet wide-angled vistas are thrust to the forefront at every conceivable opportunity. Where do Howard and Lucy lie in the vast continuum of time? Howard's career as a palaeontologist proffers the pretext to mottle the text with Lively's reflections on happenstance and coincidence, on collisions and collusions, as if beyond the narrative's frame something portentous and far bigger is at play.
That this distraction is subverted, says much for the power and intrigue of the love story, neatly knotted at the heart of the novel's concerns. Thus, even if it fails to be one of Penelope Lively's most resonant books, Cleopatra's Sister still figures emphatically as one of her most engaging.
Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Salisbury ranked seventh-best city in the world to visit in Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015
- 2 Disney announces new female-led film Moana
- 3 Banksy has not been arrested: Internet duped by fake report claiming artist's identity revealed
- 4 Kentucky gang rape: 15-year-old boy left in critical condition after sexual attack by group at party
- 5 Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
Breaking Bad season 6 is still not happening
Disney announces new female-led film Moana
Eight seconds of white noise is top of the Canadian iTunes chart because people love Taylor Swift that much
Fury, film review: Brad Pitt is intriguing as unsympathetic war hero
American Horror Story season 4, Fox - TV review: Sensitive, silly and sensational
Cameron is warned 'no possibility' of UK reducing immigration and that bid to bring in quota on migrant workers would be illegal
Residents should throw a street party and mix with immigrant neighbours, councils told
Russell Brand threatened with arrest after filming outside Fox News headquarters
London bus driver 'kicks gay couple off for kissing'
Jose Manuel Barroso warns David Cameron against making 'historic mistake' over immigration reforms
Worst Airports of 2014: Poll names Islamabad airport in Pakistan worst in the world