British author Penelope Lively turns 78 this month. Born in Cairo (where her English father worked for the National Bank) on March 17, 1933, Lively spent her early childhood in Egypt. During the Second World War, Lively and her mother were exiled in Jerusalem, unable to return to England, but after the war she did finally move there, enrolling in boarding school. Lively didn’t begin to write until midlife, and her first book Astercote was actually a children’s book. Throughout her career Lively has switched back and forth between writing for children and adults, although it is largely through her work as a novelist for adult audiences that she has made her name.
In Jane Rogers’ 2001 book Good Fiction Guide, the entry for Lively says this:
“Penelope Lively was born in Egypt, married a don, and lives in a sixteenth-century farmhouse. In those three details one has something of an insight into her writing as a whole: a sense of other cultures and other places, an academic setting for several of her novels, and her intense consciousness of the presence in the past”
My first, and I guess now that I think of it, only experience with the work of Lively, came during university when I was assigned her 1987 Booker Prize winning novel Moon Tiger in a literature class. True to what happens with books you read long ago, I don’t recall the plot with any detail, although this publisher’s description is starting to ring some bells:
“Claudia Hampton, a beautiful, famous writer, lies dying in hospital. But, as the nurses tend to her with quiet condescension, she is plotting her greatest work: ‘a history of the world … and in the process, my own’.”
What I do remember is being fascinated by the style and structure, which weaves through time. I recall really liking the book, finding it intricate and poetic and, while challenging, immensely enjoyable. Although the Booker win seems to ensure that Moon Tiger is the book most quickly associated with her name, other well received titles from Lively include the more recent books The Photograph, in which a man tries to unravel the mystery presented when he discovers a photograph of his late wife holding hands with another man, and Making It Up, which, although very much a novel, was billed as an “anti-memoir” that imagines how Lively’s life might have been different if she’d made different choices.
If you’re already a fan of Penelope Lively, you may want to explore the works of these authors as well:
Margaret Drabble: like Lively, history plays an important role in Drabble’s fiction. Both others frequently (although by no means, exclusively) examine the lives of women and offer social commentary on their time. Drabble is also a literary author with a sometimes complex writing style that may appeal to Lively fans.
Michael Ondaatje: the poetic aspect of Lively’s writing might make for a good link to Ondaatje, who has also published as a poet. The English Patient also features love in wartime (as many of Lively’s books do) and like Moon Tiger, tells its story in a nonlinear fashion.
If this little snippet into the life and work of Lively has intrigued you, you may also want to consider the author’s memoir: Oleander, Jacaranda.