BOOK REVIEW / That Egyptian mummy: 'Oleander, Jacaranda' - Penelope Lively: Viking, 14 pounds

Maggie Traugott
Saturday 21 May 1994 23:02 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

it is hard to imagine Penelope Lively shouting 'surf's up' and shooting the waves on her monogrammed surfboard, but we learn in this diverting memoir that there was a time for the Booker prize-winner when 'surfing was the whole point of existence'. And where else would you find a child's-eye view of Charles de Gaulle in his paisley dressing-gown during a secret visit to Jerusalem in 1941, but from Lively's own simultaneous stay at Government House, where she and her nanny shared a bathroom with the General?

These are the sort of raffish glimpses we get of a highly unusual childhood spent in Egypt in the 1930s and the Middle East through the escalation of the Second World War, made all the more exotic in contrast with the drabness of wartime England where Penelope was dispatched, in 1943, when she was 12. Thereafter she was shuttled between a Harley Street grandmother and a Somerset grandmother, sent to boarding school, and was not to return to Egypt for 40 years - except in her celebrated novels.

Sending Penelope to England was only in part a safety measure. It had more to do with her parents' recent and scandalous divorce. Her mother had not requested custody of her daughter, a rebuff which must have been harder to bear than the author lets on. This mother gives a chilling under-current to the book. A dashing hostess to the right sort of expatriate at the Lively's luxurious spread outside Cairo, she was fond of declaring 'it took a particular mentality to be able to look after a child'. The implication, that she meant a mentality inferior to her own, was not lost on Penelope or her nanny-and-lifeline Lucy, who is in many ways the heroine of the piece.

Lively describes her education as something she and Lucy muddled through together, under a correspondence course for British children abroad called PNEU (Parents National Educational Union). If geometry proved intractible they would overkill on long-division. If 'Citizenship' fazed them, they read everything on the Lively bookshelves instead, from Greek mythology to Oscar Wilde. 'Reading was what we were best at and we knew it,' says Lively.

Then there was the whole teeming garden at home at Bulaq Dakhbur which, if it didn't exactly correspond to the PNEU curriculum, was filled with wonders - where a snake charmer came once a year to cleanse away serpents and where Penelope, in the absence of playmates, communed with eucalyptus trees, tortoises and guinea pigs who bred with 'biblical intensity'.

Lively's most illuminating, and debatably most anal, impulse in the book is to delineate the nature of a child's way of perceiving - detached from logic and preconceptions, unencumbered by solid information and fiercely concentrated in the here and now. A toddling Lively was surreally inclined to suppose, when her father's bathing towel slipped below his torso, 'that perhaps he had seaweed growing out of him'. Her nanny's cleavage appeared to be a hole in her chest.

Even if Lively concedes that you can't scientifically quantify the extraordinary way children learn to negotiate the jungle in which they find themselves, she has a go, by means of grown-up methodology and metaphor. Like an archaeologist, she aims to 'take the shards within my head and try to place them within the correct strata'. She yearns to fix what happened when, to extrapolate Rommel and the Allied Forces from Wonderland, to see clearly both the little girl who single-mindedly clutched her surfboard and the waves of war that broke around her.

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