Fig Tree, £14.99 or Order at a discount from The Independent Bookshop

Book review: Ammonites & Leaping Fish: a life in time, By Penelope Lively

Alert and sceptical, this memoir twins personal history with sharp analysis of memory and time

Distinguished dame she may be (made DBE last year), and a prize-festooned octogenarian, but Penelope Lively has often sought to shake the ground beneath our feet.

Get this book at the discounted price of £11.99 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

From According to Mark and the Booker-winning Moon Tiger through to recent works such as How It All Began, her fiction has dug deep into the mingled strata of memory, imagination and documentary record that compose the stories we tell ourselves and others. "I wanted to write novels that would explore the ways in which memory works and what it can do to people," she says in this, her third memoir, "to see if it is the crutch on which we lean, or the albatross around the neck."

Given her career-long scepticism about narrative and evidence – not for nothing do archaeology, history-writing and photography figure so prominently in her books – she makes an unusually alert and vigilant autobiographer. Oleander, Jacaranda, her recollections of an Egyptian childhood before and during the Second World War, balanced flashes of intense subjective recollection with the great explosions of global history. In A House Unlocked, the family home in Somerset became the site of an exercise in lyrical forensics. Her interrogations of objects and their owners fashioned a mosaic portrait of a place and age.

Ammonites & Leaping Fish draws on both approaches. It enriches them with a reflection on the gifts and traps of memory and, in the opening section, a view of old age from a new arrival in that foreign land. Shrewd and stoical, Lively avoids brisk, mustn't-grumble evasiveness. The ailments, the losses, receive their proper due, but no more. Against these blows of time, the self survives and evolves as each older person becomes "the accretion of all that we have been". Neither mournful nor glib, this robust stock-taking from the vantage-point of 80 will enlighten those younger as well as please her peers. Reading remains as vitally nourishing as ever. Travel, however, has lost its charms.

The second stretch of this five-act performance returns us to the protected idyll of 1930s Egypt, and the epic drama of those wartime years. So to austerity-chilled post-1945 England and the trends and crises - the Suez débâcle, the opening-up of women's lives and choices - that left indelible traces. In a survey of postwar social mobility, she calls marriage to the Newcastle-born academic Jack Lively, "a young man from the northern working class", "my only swerve" from family allegiance. In truth, she's far less conventional than that. Look at the amused frankness of the passages on sexual emancipation.

Lucid but subtle, the centrepiece on memory both anchors the whole book and addresses Lively's own practice as a novelist. Against the "frozen moments" via which we experience the past – snapshots or slideshows, with broad blurred vistas in between – the writer must somehow engineer and sustain the arc of a plot. We need, collectively as well as individually, the running film as well as the isolated frame. Thus history serves as the irreplaceable "ballast of the past".

A discursive chapter on the cherished books that have "freed me from the prison of myself" leads into the finale. Each of six objects - mementos, souvenirs, or little household gods - illuminates a remembered episode. A compact New Testament from Jerusalem conjures the febrile Palestine of 1942, while blue lias ammonites picked up on a Dorset beach link personal memory with the layers of evolutionary time revealed by "awe-inspiring" palaeontology. This bracingly self-aware memoir ends with a recognition that "it is not enough to live here and now". Other worlds, and other epochs, have moulded every life in time.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'