23rd Apr 2012
How It All Began by Penelope Lively
Penelope Lively is the writer of one of my favourite short stories, so the chance to review her new novel seemed too good to be true.
Her latest book displays the author’s trademark skill in penetrating real life, right now, and distilling it so we get a real glimpse of ourselves and others – all through the medium of a relaxing bedtime read!
How It All Began is a multi-thread story and in fact reads like a piece of knitting unravelling, starting as it does from a ‘butterfly effect’ premise.
When Charlotte, a retired teacher, is mugged and breaks her hip, the consequences are surprisingly momentous for her immediate family – and people she’s never met. Relationships start, end, and restart; careers are made and broken; lives change.
The various, seemingly unconnected characters, and their individual paths, are eventually brought together, but (returning to the dubious knitting metaphor) it’s not all neatly tied off – Lively’s world is too rooted in the realities and compromises of life for that.
Through the lives of characters of various ages and backgrounds, issues that face our society as a whole (the treatment of immigrants), those that are particular to certain stages of life (starting a new career) and concerns that many of us experience at some time (finding love when you’re in a relationship already) are shown.
I say shown, because that seems best to sum up Lively’s style – the ‘exploration’ of these themes comes from the reader as a direct response to her seemingly effortless storytelling.
One of the book’s greatest strengths is its tender, yet unflinching, portrayal of the ageing process – Lively explores dependency, and the experience of comprehending your own physical or intellectual decline.
I found self-important historian Lord Henry’s humiliating realisation that he is no longer a cutting-edge authority on his subject, but an outdated, fondly indulged fossil (‘he … detects patronage – even, possibly, mild contempt … the situation is unbearable’), particularly poignant.
There’s no doubt at all that Lively can capture, with a mere pen-flick, transitional moments in individual human lives – and these are immediately identifiable when extrapolated beyond the world of her characters to our own.
Yet there’s a ‘but’. Although the book is expertly executed, it’s not one I would re-read, as I didn’t feel much of a bond with any of the characters; or perhaps I’m childishly surly because the ones I did empathise with and cheer on didn’t get quite the ending I hoped for!
Which novels, poems and plays have brought moments of life into sharp relief for you?
How It All Began is published by Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin Books, and is available from Amazon. Get the hardback for £11.21, pre-order the paperback (out next week) for £6.74, or get the Kindle edition for £4.99.
Recommended for: Anyone who wants a fairly light read without the rehashed plots and neat endings that often go with them.
Other recommended reading: I found this one hard to categorise, falling as it does between what is often sneeringly dismissed as ‘women’s lives’ stories and keen observation of life in (mostly, but not exclusively, middle- to upper-class) Britain today. So I’ve hedged my bets!
For the aforementioned maligned ‘women’s lives’ category, try Pack of Cards. The book contains stories penned or published between 1978 and 1986 and as such provides interesting insights into recent decades.