Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time by Penelope Lively

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Paperback review by Denise Kong

Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time is an intelligent, illuminating and thoughtful memoir, which left me wanting its author, Penelope Lively, to be my next door neighbour so that I could invite her over for tea and cake and ask her more about it, whenever I wanted. (It is probably a good thing for her that she is not.)

It must be pointed out that in her prologue, Lively states that “this is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age.”

Lively is eighty-one years old and has been publishing books since she was thirty-seven. Old age is where her latest book begins. Lively discusses the way societies deal with their ageing populations, and her personal experience of the pains, frailties and surprises that ageing entails. On this latter subject she is almost clinically objective, keen not to don “that hazard light worn by the old – slow, potentially boring, hard going.”

We can never imagine being old when we are not, although the experience will surely hit us all, unless we die first, and Lively is as surprised as the rest of us at being “ambushed” by its onset. “Rage, rage, etc…” of course comes into it, although Lively’s approach is more along the lines of Read, read… She has become resigned to the physical trials of age, seeing it as “com(ing) to terms with a different incarnation.” She has given up all the things that her body struggles with and that she no longer has a strong wish to do. But she is determined to stay engaged, with people of all different ages, with current events, and with ideas.

The second chapter is the only chapter devoted to the events of Lively’s life and concentrates on her childhood and young adulthood, with a few insights into her later life working as a writer.

Lively’s childhood was not unusual in its day: earliest memories in the Middle East, returning after the end of the war “from warmth and colour to the chill grey of England.” Then an uninspiring boarding school, from which, despite everything, she managed to get into Oxford, where she met and married fellow student Jack Lively. Thereafter the lives of: an academic’s wife; stay-at-home mother; successful writer.

Her colonial childhood in particular comes from an era long past, and Lively’s filter of modesty, politeness and thoughtfulness likewise. There is less of self and feelings, more on observation and the world outside. Lively’s degree is in History and she is more interested in the reliability of memory, and how we manage the information that makes up our pasts than in the actual events.

Her other interest is engagement with the world. She describes her awakening from the “mindless trance” of blissful political ignorance, triggered by the 1956 Suez Crisis. Not only was it the event being discussed all around her at work, but it had a personal resonance; Lively’s adopted homeland, England, was bombing the land of her childhood, Egypt.

Following this awakening, Lively races through her growing engagement with different political events and movements: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War, her brushes with the KGB abroad. At home, she describes a society which desperately needed to reform its abortion and homosexuality laws and to change its attitude to contraception and sexual politics.

The remaining chapters are reflections on the nature of memory; on the processes of reading and writing; and a reflection on six objects of her choice, which have a special meaning to her. Among these objects, we find our ammonites and leaping fish, relics from pre-historic and medieval times respectively. These objects are meaningful to her, because “it is not enough to live here and now…. I need those imaginative leaps out of my own time-frame.”

In the age towards which we are headed, will we have any more writers who are able to resist expanding on the “floundering outcast” of their teenage self, “socially inept, after that isolated upbringing”? Writers who skip out the steps between being a “child tethered young mother” and shortlisted for the Booker Prize with their first novel?

Being a reader of more modern sensitivities, I would have liked to have read more about these episodes. But Lively is more interested in things which last, like the ammonites and leaping fish. Like ideas, like books, like reading, which she says has “freed me from the prison of myself.”

And besides, is it necessary to give us more than the one anecdote, about her school for example, when that anecdote sums up everything you need to know about its intellectually repressive atmosphere? Such deftness shows too much superiority even to be classed as revenge. But the effect of it will outlive all the unhappiness of the earlier self, at once both “crystal clear” and “unreachable.”

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Penelope Lively, Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time (Penguin: London, 2014). 978-0241966983, 240pp, paperback.

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