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


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The Independent Culture

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.