I’ve been having trouble with Penelope Lively lately. I love most of her adult novels that I’ve tried, with the glaring, embarrassing, exception of Booker-winning Moon Tiger which I found dull. I now have two theories as to why Moon Tiger is in all the charity shops, but few of her other novels are. The first is that when Moon Tiger was short-listed for the Booker it was bought by the ton by people who buy the Booker shortlist because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and it didn’t work for many of them. My other theory is that her other novels are just better, so people want to keep them.
I could, of course, shop for Penelope Lively’s complete works online, sight unseen, but I need to feel the story clawing at me as I read the back cover and sample a few pages, before I can commit. Her titles are not great for selling a book: they mean important things once you’ve reached the end, but they don’t work for me when I’m considering whether this or that one is the one I want to buy, even though I know full well she is a marvellous novelist and they will be good. I have one whose cover repels me – one of those boring, generic faux-vintage recoloured photographs aimed at the reader who wants more of the same rather than a novel with a personality of its own – and whose title is completely forgettable, so it’s no wonder I’m struggling to even pick it up. So I’m not reading her whole oeuvre, I’m just cherry-picking.
While swithering in a bookshop between two rather dull Lively titles that I didn’t yet own, I noticed that a guerilla book-shelver had parked Lively’s memoir Oleander, Jacaranda next to Passing On (which I have already got and love), so I bypassed the unread dull titles and went straight to her memoir. What a memoir this is. I know it’s been praised since it first appeared, and is a Classic, but what joy it is to stumble on a Classic that really is one.
What I particularly like about Oleander, Jacaranda – Lively’s memoir of her childhood in Egypt during the Second World War – is that she interrogates her own memories. She sets them out, one by one, then explains what was happening, then sits back and thinks about them. She fills in the social and the historical context (that’s me hooked), she thinks about the people involved as people, not just static figures or unknown walk-on characters. She considers language, and naming, and whether crocodiles really could have been in the Nile at that time.
She also goes back to revisit Cairo, on a trip in the 1980s, to look for her childhood home, to sail up the Nile, to look hopelessly for the beach that she remembers in Alexandria, now mostly concrete. When she and her husband begin looking for the house, their taxi-driver keeps stopping to ask for directions, and their car accumulates an entourage of interested passers-by. Then the street is found, the building is identified, the caretaker opens up the gates, and her new acquaintances swarm over the garden joyfully while Lively experiences some very complicated emotions about the house and garden that she inhabited as an only child for years.
She was brought up by her nurse, and later de facto governess, Lucy (no surname given), who becomes as important in the story as the child Penelope. Lively’s mother is a vague figure, glimpsed in a photograph wearing a smart 1940s bathing suit on a terrace, and grinning at a desert picnic, but who abandons her marriage and child for a new husband. In 1945 the twelve-year old Penelope was sent to Britain on a troopship with Lucy, to be brought up by her grandmothers, obligingly taking turn about, until her father could come back from Egypt. Lucy, at some point, found a new post. When Lucy, in her old age, returned the letters that this miserable girl had written to her when Lucy had moved on to her new post, Lively read them once, and burned them, because she could not bear to read them again. She doesn’t speculate as to what Lucy may have felt on deciding to leave the child she had brought up for twelve years in the class-ridden isolation of ex-pat Cairo, and she is probably right. There is so much unspoken potential for misery in their parting. Once Lucy had gone, the child Penelope would have been living in what might have felt like an existence of unpermanence: a mother who had left (even if Lively hadn’t had much to do with her mother, a mother is a mother), a father who had promised to join her (but when?), two grandmothers who were affectionate but who passed her between her (how often? and for how long?), and finally the horrors of being parked in a boarding school, with respite only at the end of each term.
It’s the gaps in the narrative that are heart-breaking. Lively chooses not to say much about her relationship with her mother, while she is clearly very fond of her father. Who was this mother who didn’t seem to want the life or child that her marriage brought her? Lively is ambivalent about Lucy: I didn’t get the sense that she loved Lucy because she chose to, that Lucy was a particularly lovable person, but that she loved her because Lucy was her life, and her mainstay, her companion and carer and her dogged teacher, working to keep a lesson ahead of Lively in their home schooling textbooks. I admire Lucy immensely, and loved the image of she and the child Penelope reading Dickens aloud to each other, working their way through the Greek myths, because these were the only books they had. It was war-time, but did no-one think it necessary to do anything more for this child?
The natural ending to the memoir comes when the teenage Penelope is politely accompanying some family friend – she was fortunate in the family friends who did things for her that Lucy could not and her parents did not – around the bombed site of St Paul’s in London, because now the wreckage had been cleared, archaeology was visible. The distant teenager began to pay attention to his remarks, and on the mention of a fragment of Roman wall in situ she experienced an epiphany of connection. She knew all about the Romans, because Cairo, and Egypt, was full of their remains, but did he mean to say that the Romans came here? To Britain? And thus her life began again.