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

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star