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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn