Penguin £14.99

Book review: Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life In Time, by Penelope Lively

 

Not a memoir, exactly, but rather “the view from old age”, Penelope Lively’s “life in time” is a reader’s pure delight. For starters, the book is a beautiful object in itself, as her books often are.

It works as a whistle-stop history of the past 80 years from the perspective of one delightful and bookish woman’s life. It looks at writing in general, and at Lively’s own method in particular: “I wanted to write novels that would explore the ways in which memory works and what it can do to people ….” Reading it is like listening to a favourite older relative reminisce … if only older relatives were all well-travelled Oxford history graduates with keen humour, and a sharp knack for observing human behaviour.

“I come from a horribly long-lived family,” Lively observes, early on. Fifteen years a widow, with no more or less than her share of illness, she does not fear dying, nor does she envy the young. As a novelist, she says, ageing is handy. “We are not exactly invisible, but we are not noticed, which I rather like; it leaves me free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch ….” But she does have the odd regret. “What I really do miss is intensive gardening … it evokes tomorrow ….” “My old-age fear is not being able to read – the worst deprivation.” And, talking of the joy she takes in amateur geology: “I wish I had packed in more rocks.”

The book is divided into four main sections: Old Age (an analysis of the old through history and in literature, which describes being “ambushed” by old age and notes, “You aren’t going to get old, of course, when you’re young.”); Life and Times (in which she describes the curious perspective of having experienced “history”); Memory (which is also about writing); and Six Things, in which the ammonites and leaping fish of the title appear, alongside two duck kettle holders, a bronze Egyptian cat and other “sherds” of memories from a life well lived.

There is an amused tone to many of the recollections here, giving the impression that Lively wrote this book at this time just because she can. After listing the plants in her small London garden, she notes, “well, some of you will be gardeners and might share my tastes”. And after a particularly fascinating digression on the incidence of myopia among heavy readers, she notes: “‘Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.’ I gather they do, nowadays.” She writes with a twinkle in her eye.

Lively doesn’t pretend to speak for anyone but herself here, but it is tempting to look for advice. What is important, after all’s said and done, are friends, memories, humour, and books. “It is not enough to live here and now,” she concludes. Lively’s generosity and wise perception will surely outlive her; but happily, it seems she’s not going anywhere yet.

Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before