Books: Knit your own plot-line

BEYOND THE BLUE MOUNTAINS by Penelope Lively, Penguin pounds 14.99

Adult life and middle age have never had a better mirror than Penelope Lively's new book of 15 short stories, in which women's aspirations and moods are reflected with gentle humour.

The book is a neat combination of myth and legend, fantasy and realism. In "The First Wife", a 59-year-old businessman, meeting his former wife again at a wedding, experiences a sudden gush of tender feelings and romantic notions for her. There is hope for a reunion, impelled by nothing but the mood of the moment. He craftily drops hints then waits confidently. The first wife reacts quickly. She sends a dry note commenting politely on these misplaced overtures, and full of concerned enquiries about his current spouse.

Lively tackles all kinds of seemingly familiar situations and incidents. Hijacked by a hungry tramp on Christmas Eve (what a story it makes for recalling to friends) in "Season of Goodwill"; getting lost in the wild with a forceful friend in "Slovenian Giantess"; running into domestic chaos "In Olden Times" when a modern mother gets out of kilter with her daily routine; enjoying an autumn romance in "The Clarinet and the Bride's Aunt". Her plots may be homespun, but her handling, never. The title story strikes the only dull note, ending abruptly after documenting a confrontation of adultery with scant passion.

Humour runs below the surface and shows up suddenly, gentle and ironic, passing a smile on to the reader. In "Marriage Lines", a couple take cover after their arguments are pounced on by a hard-selling counsellor, out to magnify an insignificant quarrel into a failed marriage. In "Five Thousand and One Nights" we are in modern times, the sultan has run out of steam and he takes over the role of storyteller from Scheherazade.

The ubiquitous busybody aunt (every family has one) of "A Christmas Card to One and All" writes a letter with that self-applauding note with which such matrons run their families like factories, with silver-polished sons admitted to the right colleges and daughters given proper weddings (never mind if she burst into tears at the loud silk bouquet that was pinned to her wedding dress to add a touch of grandeur).

The protagonists of most of Lively's stories are women, picked from across the streets and suburbs of London. She doesn't go for easy pathos, and fleshes out her characters with dignity and with courage. Even their faults seem entirely forgivable. There are no high notes of drama, voluble arguments or terrible conflicts. These stories simply record events in the lives of uneventful people, where drama enters in the form of a hungry burglar or a reunion at a wedding. Fantasy stories such as "Children of Grupp" seem like sad fairy tales, and the homage to the Arabian Nights contrasts vividly with the urban household stories that fill the rest of the book.

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