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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.

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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.

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