Penelope Lively


(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUN 3, 2007)

"Ruth walks through the olives, and there ahead is a great expanse of bright flower beds, and rank upon rank of brilliant white headstones that stretch right away down to the curve of the sea. So many. They make orderly patterns as she stands looking—diagonals and lines ahead and lines to right and left. There are gravel paths between the rows, and beds of flowers in front of each—geraniums, petunias, canna lilies, hibiscus, and rosemary bushes. Everything is groomed, immaculate. This is order, and control. It is the antithesis of everything that went on back here back then—the confusion, the carnage. It is very quiet, there are no other visitors. Just blue butterflies dancing above the flowers, swallows zipping overhead, the gentle rasp of cicadas."

While it would be accurate to describe British author Penelope Lively’s latest novel Consequences as a story that spans three generations of women, such a description does not capture the depth or the tone of this simply marvelous book. I tend to grit my teeth and prepare for the worst if I hear about a multi-generational novel--they so often teeter dangerously close to the soap opera level. After all, just how many marriages, births, deaths, and love affairs can you squeeze into the average-sized novel and still come away with anything of substance? But in Consequences, British author Penelope Lively manages to create a novel that spans the fates of three generations of women, while exploring their interconnected lives, and the caprices of fate. But it’s Lively’s eloquent kaleidoscopic treatment of time and space that elevates this novel to something quite beautiful. Her characters’ memories “are stashed away now, like reels of film, to be replayed at will.” And Lively not only replays those memories, but also shows the invisible--often-unrecognized--connections between her characters.

The novel begins in Britain in 1935 when a young girl named Lorna Bradley meets Matt Farraday. Lorna, who comes from a conventional family, and whose father is a government official, lives a life of relative privilege. Nonetheless, she feels like a “changeling” and has little in common with her family’s values. When she breaks away from her family and marries Matt after a brief romance, there are virtually no connections left for Lorna with her past. Lorna and Matt move to a remote, primitive cottage. Here they enjoy a short, happy, and idyllic married life, and their child, Molly is born. Just as Matt’s career as an artist seems assured, he is swept away by WWII never to return. There’s a prescient, shimmering feeling of the temporal that runs through Matt and Lorna’s story. At one point, Lorna works in her garden planting vegetables:

She sat there feeling the sun on her skin, seeing the mist of grass overthe woodland down below, the sharp little blades of new grass under her feet—everything growing, rushing into life. And me, she thought, I’madding to it—we are, Matt and I. Clever us. Except that it isn’t really clever at all, it just happens, and we’re only doing what is always done, seeing to it that things go on, that someone will come after us, that there is a future.

Their story should follow the normal course of human lives with Matt and Lorna enjoying their family, and eventually growing old together, but WWII is seen as a juggernaut that intervenes, interrupts their promise, and steals their future. While Matt’s life is tragically cut short, Lorna must continue on. But Matt leaves traces of his life and his love in his art, and these resurface later in the most surprisingly and wonderful way.

Molly, as an adult, navigates a changing society in 1960s Britain. She grows up in a hodge-podge household with just the vaguest of memories of her parents:

Her parents seemed to her now to be somewhere far away, as though youlooked through the wrong end of a telescope. At the same time, they were constant, frozen forever in a particular instant of recollection: her father dressed as a soldier standing in a doorway, her mother in the office herein the Fulham house, her hands on the typewriter, looking up with a smile.

Molly eventually lands a job in a posh private library, she’s too unconventional and too free a thinker to ever fit in. Molly experiences the feeling of not quite belonging, and these feelings are similar to her mother’s alienation from her family. But the traces of her mother’s identification as a “changeling” and her memories have been lost in time, and so Molly doesn’t recognize that her individualism—a combination of her mother Lorna’s self-reliance, and her father Matt’s artistry--in Molly is a formula for unconventionality. While conventional opportunities are handed to her, Molly is dissatisfied, and she must carve her own place in the world.

In turn, Molly’s daughter, Ruth marries and has children. She chooses, at first, a conventional path, but then inexplicably verves away from it. While Ruth cannot see that the path she takes is shaped by the generations who have passed before her, the reader has the privileged information that allows us to recognize Ruth’s choices for what they are. While Ruth may think it’s a random act that causes her to visit an art gallery, the reader knows that Ruth is treading a path--a path that leads inevitably to her past.

Lively effectively manages to collapse time and space in her novel by the introduction--not just of powerful memories--but also mementos that pass from generation to generation. While much is lost--Matt’s young promise and a brilliant career as an artist, his legacy is seeded through subsequent generations.  Although “trapped within a slide of the present” Lively’s characters often collide with echoes of the past, and at such moments “past and present seem to run concurrently: what happened, what is thought to have happened.” Life is seen as fragile, full of chance encounters and twists of fate. And yet at the same time, life is also remarkably, vibrantly strong. Our lives are but a “game of Consequences” replete with connections that are often invisible, and through our actions we leave traces of ourselves behind.  Penelope Lively is an amazingly consistent writer, and I don’t think it’s possible for her to produce a ‘bad’ book, but in Consequences, Lively has surpassed her previous work. Never coy, never clichéd, this is arguably Lively’s best novel yet.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 35 review
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"Making It Up"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUN 3, 2007)

"Somehow choice and contingency have landed you where you are, as the person that you are, and the whole process seems so precarious that you look back at those climatic moments when things might have gone entirely differently, when life might have spun off in some other direction, and wonder at this apparently arbitrary outcome."

Working on the premise that her life could have taken many different turns at several crucial moments, British author Penelope Lively creates eight wonderful short stories in the collection Making It Up. Calling the collection an “anti-memoir” Lively creates stories that examine real moments in her life and then taking a "what if" approach she explores the possibilities of what could have happened. Each story begins with a recollection from Lively’s personal life, and with this recollection she plays with the idea of an alternate fate. This idea is then carried forth in fiction, and Lively notes that writers maintain “absolute control” over their characters--whereas “real life is quite out of control.”

The first story “The Mozambique Channel” is the story of a British nanny forced to flee on a ship from Egypt during the Second World War. In real life, Lively, who was a child during this period, fled from Egypt with her mother to Palestine. In the story, however, the nanny, Shirley Manners, her small precious charge, and her employer, Mrs. Leech, take a ship bound for Cape Town. This decision turns out to have monumental consequences for those aboard the ship. This wonderful story is one of the best in this marvelous collection, and the story follows the nanny’s attempts to cope on the ship in light of the mother’s total abdication of parental responsibility. Shirley is devoted to her young charge, and she attempts to maintain the facsimile of normalcy for the child in spite of the danger. Meanwhile Mrs. Leech and her ridiculous society friends attempt to maintain the class distinctions that make them feel secure and "important."

In “Comet” Sarah Low, a lonely middle-aged woman who works in a museum receives the news that the remains of her long-dead half sister, Penelope, have been located on a hillside in Italy. Penelope was last seen alive as she boarded a plane from Egypt to return to Britain. Sarah never knew Penelope, and decades have passed since she was killed, but with no other living relatives, it falls to Sarah to arrange a funeral and a memorial service. Sarah meets an elderly gentleman who was Penelope’s lover, and she receives a broken locket that was found with Penelope’s remains. Sarah is intrigued with Penelope’s story, and she decides to have the locket restored. There’s a strong bittersweet strain to this story as Penelope’s life was stolen away by fate, and yet through Penelope, fate brings new hope and unexpected chances to Sarah.

“Transatlantic” concerns Carol, a middle-aged British woman, married to an American professor, who returns to Britain on a visit. It’s the first time she’s returned since the death of her elderly parents, and this is a peculiar visit for her. Realising that the death of her parents somehow lessens her ties to Britain, Carol decides to visit her snobby Aunt Margaret and Uncle Clive—both perennial traditionalists--along with her husband, economist Ben. Ostensibly the visit for Carol is to satisfy her curiosity about her ancestors, but this uncomfortable visit has strange, liberating and unexpected results as she discovers that she has very little in common with her surviving relatives. “Transatlantic” is an extremely clever story that examines the depths of hollow alienation that occurs in those who leave their native lands. During her return visits to Britain, Carol experiences an uncomfortable sense of alienation:

“Over time, something happened. What had been engaging and reassuring became vaguely threatening, even hostile. It was she who was out of step, who could not cope with changed circumstances. At some point, there had been a subtle shift in the relationship; where once she had been the benign nostalgic visitor, the lamb back in the fold, now she was the outsider, someone who received the polite treatment meted out to any transient. An invisible door had closed, and she did not know if it was she who had conjured it up or those others in that now-distanced place through which she moved, a world in which things were done differently.”

In another superb story from the collection, written with a wry sense of justice, “The Albert Hall” middle-aged wife and mother, Chloe Bagnold learns the hard way that “Nature and Nurture are not in apposition but have made some kind of provocative deal.” As a child of a single, “hippie” mother, Chloe grows up with the feeling she “hatched in the wrong nest.” Longing for order and a stereotypical middle-class family life, Chloe grows up and recreates herself into the sort of perfect mother she longed for. With a respectable career as a school inspector, an immaculate home, and a strong sense of the absolute necessity of respectability, Chloe is shocked to discover that in spite of her very best efforts, she’s raised a rebel. This unexpected event causes Chloe to reevaluate her childhood and the tenacity of her highly individualistic mother.

Lively shows how chance and fate play such strong roles in her characters’ lives, but at the same time, her characters also experience degrees of alienation from themselves, their relatives, and their surroundings. Penelope Lively is simply one of the best writers of modern fiction in Britain. Her luminous novels capture moments of human experience with eloquence and understated emotion. While I am a fan of Lively’s many wonderful novels, Making It Up is a playful, and yet still intensely moving collection of stories that examine fate, the resolutions of experience and capricious chance. If you’ve never read any of Penelope Lively’s novels, then you have much to look forward to, and I especially recommend Passing On, Heat Wave, and The Road to Lichfield.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 11 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to


Children's Fiction:

  • Astercote (1970)
  • The Whispering Knights (1971)
  • The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (1971)
  • The Driftway (1972)
  • The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973)
  • The House in Norham Gardens (1974)
  • Going Back (1975)
  • A Stitch In Time (1976)
  • The Voyage fo QV66 (1978)
  • The Revenge of Samuel Stokes (1981)
  • The Stained Glass Window (1976)
  • Boy Without a Name (1975)
  • Fanny's Sister (1976)
  • Fanny and the Monsters (1978)
  • Fanny and the Battle of Potter's Piece (1980)
  • Univited Ghosts and Other Stories (1984)
  • Dragon Trouble (1984)
  • Debbie and the Little Devil (1987)
  • A House Inside Out (1987)
  • Princess By Mistake (1993)
  • Judy and the Martian (1993)
  • The Cat, The Crow and the Banyan Tree (1994)
  • Good Night, Sleep Tight (1995)
  • Two Bears and Joe (1995)
  • Staying with Grandpa (1995)
  • A Martian Comes to Stay (1995)
  • Lost Dog (1996)
  • One, Two, Three...Jump (1998)
  • Spooky Stories (August 2009)


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About the Author:

Penelope LivelyPenelope Lively was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1933 and spent her childhood there. She came to England at the age of twelve, in 1945, and went to boarding school in Sussex. She subsequently read Modern History at St. Anne's College, Oxford. In 1957 she married Jack Lively (who died in 1998). They had two children, Josephine and Adam. Jack Lively's academic career took the family from Swansea to Sussex and Oxford, and eventually to Warwick University, where he was Professor of Politics.

Penelope Lively is the author of many prize-winning novels and short story collections for both adults and children.  She has twice been shortlisted for the Booker Prize; once in 1977 for her first novel, The Road to Lichfield, and again in 1984 for According to Mark.  She later won the 1987 Booker Prize for her highly acclaimed novel Moon Tiger. She first achieved success with her children's fiction. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe received the Carnegie Medal and with A Stitch in Time which won her the Whitbread Award for best children's book.

Penelope Lively now has six grandchildren and lives in London. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014