BOOK REVIEW / A sudden coup in Callimbia: 'Cleopatra's Sister' - Penelope Lively: Viking, 14.99 pounds

THE MOLECULES of fate whirr incessantly in Cleopatra's Sister, but never erratically. Penelope Lively knows the potent value of restraint, and knows that the past grows more distant the more it is scrutinised. As in the best of her other novels, there is perspective, integrity and a shapeliness of design in evidence here.

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.

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