Fig Tree, £16.99, 248pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
How It All Began, By Penelope Lively
Friday 18 November 2011
Penelope Lively's latest novel is an exploration of the chaos theory - how one small, seemingly insignificant, event can begin a series of reactions that quickly spiral beyond any prediction or pattern. The trigger is when Charlotte Rainsford, a retired English teacher, is the victim of a random mugging. Suffering a broken hip, she must go and live with her middle-aged daughter Rose and her detached, predictable husband.
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The narrative weaves between this diverse cast of characters as they collide "in a human version of a motorway shunt", but the effects are not purely negative. Confined to Rose's house, Charlotte agrees to teach the enigmatic but lost Anton from her Adult Learning class. Rose is drawn to his sad past, bewildering present and to his "dark eyes... eyes with forests in them".
But it's Charlotte who first recognises a depth in the soft-spoken Anton that reaches beyond "nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, connectives". Instead, they read a selection of rich, allegorical children's fiction beginning with Where the Wild Things Are. It is through these that Anton begins to flourish and find his way again. A consummate novelist who is approaching her 80th birthday, it is Lively herself who is the authority on the power of stories to instruct, captivate and heal.
The tone of the book is that of gentle satire. Lively presents the characters' flaws and foibles with skill, wit and a perception that is the work of a lifetime's observation. With the modern cultural references as well as the backdrop of a London facing financial crisis, crippling debt, youth crime and issues of migrant workers, it all feels familiar and relevant. The frustrations, indignities, folly and wisdom of old age, as seen through Charlotte and Lord Peter, provide the particular mix of humour and pathos that most define the novel.
To use a human equivalent of the chaos theory to frame events is an interesting conceit, but there is crucial difference. Lord Peter's strain of history as a series of "random casuality" and "erratic sequences" is discredited: as humans, the characters must choose how to respond to chance, whether or not to exercise self-discipline, kindness and moral integrity. The unravelling of this decision-making process makes for an engaging and warm read full of keenest human insight.
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