Making It Up by Penelope Lively

Intriguing exercises in the subjunctive
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The Independent Culture

Penelope Lively has never constructed her novels in, say, the Paul Theroux faux-autobiography manner, gamely slotting in her own adventures and fixations to the point where creator and creation grow indistinguishable. At the same time, a great deal of felt life has always flowed unobtrusively across their margins: scenes from her Egyptian childhood, the abiding interest in history and its artefacts; out-takes from her professional engagements. No reader of Next To Nature, Art (1983), her delicate exposé of a 1960s-style artistic community, could doubt that at some point in her career Lively had knocked up against a gang of vers libre poets and chicken-wire architects and decided to bite them good and hard.

Making It Up takes this process of self-cannibalisation a significant step further. Described by the Viking blurb-writer, with commendable prudence, as a "fiction" rather than a novel or short-story collection, it is less an account of the author's seventysomething years on the planet than a series of variations on them: eight sketches in which Lively seizes on some incident or motif from her own past (engagingly set out in the preface) and uses it as the stepping-off point for an exercise in the subjunctive. Only once, in a piece set in the Midlands town of "Hawkford", which I take to be Lichfield, is there a personal appearance.

Understandably, this approach allows for wide discrepancies in theme and treatment. In "The Mozambique Channel", opening in pre-Alamein Egypt, a genial English nanny's first love affair is capped by the death of her six-year-old charge on the torpedoed troop ship taking them south to the Cape. "The Albert Hall", on the other hand, in which Lively projects the possible consequences of a sexual encounter from 1950 through into the modern age, makes do with brittle ironisings. "The Temple of Mithras", set on an early 1970s archaeological dig thrown into crisis by the professor's absconding wife, returns us to the territory of Next to Nature, Art: the small community, the changing shifts of perspective, the careful accretions of detail bringing a two- or three-pronged dénouement.

"Imjin River", alternatively, moves into hitherto uncolonised territory with some tense reportage from a savage battle in the Korean War, to which Lively's late husband Jack narrowly escaped despatch. Perfectly fitted into their historical frames (a solitary anachronism finds the early 1970s drifter of "Number Twelve Sheep Street" attending a "rave" 15 years before they were invented), several of the stories give off a faint air of being novels - excellent novels, too - that never got beyond the prototype stage. Here and there one sees evidence of this shrewd and resourceful writer's only real weakness: an occasional reluctance to push her material to its furthest extent.

"Transatlantic", for example, brings a middle-aged Englishwoman and her American husband back to visit some elderly, country-bound relatives at the time of the Falklands War. The husband is a liberal economist; Aunt Margaret and Uncle Clive a pair of unrepentant Thatcher-loving Argy-bashers. Flying out of Heathrow a few days later, their niece, having come to explore her roots, is finally aware that she is "heading home". As ever, Lively doesn't miss a trick in her exposure of these politely disguised oppositions, but how much more telling the story would have been had she inverted the premise - had the elderly couple reveal unexpected left-wing sympathies, or made the husband a closet Reaganite.

Sharp and perceptive as Lively always is, one sometimes wants her to break out of these densely realised interiors into a more volatile world where elderly colonels quote Kierkegaard and Harvard professors sit over their tea-cups rooting for Ron.