08 February, 2014

A Life in Time

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I am a Penelope Lively fan. I was lucky enough to receive her latest book as a Christmas gift from my children, and recently finished reading it.

This book is called "Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time". Unlike most of Lively's other books (the ones I've read, anyway), this is not a work of fiction. Rather it is is something like a memoir, but not quite--perhaps it is best described as an extended essay on the topic of old age.

The book falls into five parts. The first examines what it is actually like to be old (Lively is now eighty)--the pleasures and the pitfalls; what old age feels like. The second examines the overarching backdrop to Lively's life--the political, social and archaeological era that has contextualised her existence. The third examines memory--why people remember as they do and how memory deteriorates with age. The fourth focuses on books and writing--Lively discusses some of the books that have made the greatest impression on her, and how they have have influenced her own writing. And the final part talks about six objects that Lively owns and which, in different ways, represent and define different parts of her life.

The quality of Lively's writing is, as usual, first class. When reading her prose, I always feel as if I am listening to a good friend. Her writing instils that kind of intimacy, while at the same time touching on profound, deeply meaningful matters. Quite a feat, but then that is her gift.

As with all of Lively's work, this book comes highly recommended, particularly the sections on old age and memory. (I found the section on the political and social context informative, but a little dull--although I suspect that someone of Lively's own generation would find the material here much more interesting.)

My only complaint is that this book has a touch of finality about it--memoirs, old age and so on are all suggestive of the end of an era. I just hope that this isn't so quite yet and that this won't be the last book that Lively writes.

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