How It All Began, By Penelope Lively

The chaos theory of human affairs

Random incidents of cause and effect are by coincidence the subject of Lively's latest novel.

Its epigraph is a quote from James Gleick's Chaos, which brought the butterfly effect into everyday discourse. But the "butterfly" event on the opening page of this novel is far more brutal than a flutter of wings: "The pavement rises up and hits her. Slams into her face, drives the lower rim of her glasses into her cheek ..."

Charlotte's mugging by an anonymous teenager quickly causes hurricanes in lives that barely even touch hers. Her daughter, Rose, cannot accompany her employer Lord Peters, a formerly eminent historian with "a soft spot for what is known as the Cleopatra's nose theory of history", to give a lecture. Without his efficient and uncomplaining PA, he forgets his notes, and his humiliation leads to a comically ill-advised excursion into TV. His niece, Marion, a recession-hit interior designer, accompanies Henry to the lecture in Rose's place, but her text message to cancel a meeting with her lover is intercepted by his wife. Charlotte stays with Rose and her husband Gerry, where she tutors an Eastern European immigrant, Anton, from the adult literacy class where she volunteers. Anton is everything that Gerry, in his comfortable, distant marriage to Rose, is not ...

As always, Lively has a precise control of the comic, and an ear for dialogue honed over more than 40 years of writing. Charlotte's occasional glimpses of what it means to be old are gentle and wise; she is more amused by the absurdity of her situation than railing bitterly against it. Now and then, Lively seems to be sharing a joke with the reader, too. As Charlotte breaks through Anton's reading blocks using treasured children's books such as Charlotte's Web and Where the Wild Things Are, they begin to talk about humans' need to follow stories. "Messages die hard," says Charlotte. "The modern novel has tried to shed them, though I suppose they creep in here and there."

Later, she agrees with Anton that "Ambiguity can be effective, for an ending ... [In life] you don't come across endings, as such. There's a fearful term that's in fashion at the moment – closure. People apparently believe it is desirable, and attainable."

Here is a novel full of stories, but one that refuses to pander to novelistic notions of narrative, ending, cause and effect. It asks questions about the extent to which humans are in charge of their own stories. All we can be sure of, it seems to say, is "a handful of images" collected over a lifetime. That, and that "no man is an island, even a 14-year-old [mugger] with behavioural problems."

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