Review by New York Times Review
PENELOPE LIVELY IS WRITING from another country, a place she calls "old age." She is 80, and so, she assures us, she is now "a native" of this territory, an "authority." "Dancing Fish and Ammonites" is about growing old, about memory and history, about reading and writing and the way experiences become associated with certain objects - with a book, say, or a piece of pottery. Lively has explored these themes before, in her many novels and in a handful of previous memoirs. This time, though, she says she wants to address them more abstractly: "I find myself thinking less about what has happened to me but interested in this lifetime context, in the times of my life." She's not trying to tell us a story. Old age is not a country one can visit and leave. One might not even know when one has arrived. Sometimes I feel as if I'm nearing its shores, and I'm in my 30s. Penelope Lively is here to tell me that I'm not. From her perspective, 70 is "the brink of old age." While I may be drawing closer, until I'm an authority myself, I'll have to trust her. So why don't I? Lively's book describes the view from old age as if to a stranger, but it doesn't turn that stranger into a native. Her narrative style can be buoyant and propulsive, but also overly chatty and strangely baggy. "I never speak French now," she remarks in a section on memory, "but because once, when I was young, I spent a long time in France and emerged with good French, I still have the language, after a fashion; I wouldn't be able to speak it as I once did, but the ghost of it is there in my head - I know how you say this, say that." She communicates ideas and experiences, with flashes of narrative color: the tins of water in which the feet of her crib stood in childhood, to spare her from Cairo's ants; the layout of a beloved garden; the sight of women in felt hats and gloves as they walked past the bombed-out rubble of wartime Britain. But she doesn't inspire empathy. She opens a space between herself and her audience, then measures the distance. Fans of Lively's previous books may be interested in knowing what she was reading when she began "Cleopatra's Sister" (Stephen Jay Gould's "Wonderful Life"), or what prompted her to write "City of the Mind" (a booklet about Martin Frobisher from Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum). And those who are close to old age, or who fear it, may find "solace," as she puts it, in her assertion that her present life is as fresh and vivid as her life has ever been; that she revels in small pleasures; that reading is the drug that sustains her. But for me, the moment that resonates is the one she ends on, in which she describes her desire for "imaginative leaps out of my own time frame and into other places." Those lines send me elsewhere, to Lively's other books - to books that don't describe a view but inhabit it. To Lively's credit, she makes the point that the view from old age is always changing. But I found myself wishing for an account that was more particular, less about context than about this one extraordinary woman. Penelope Lively's voice is suggestive. It's the voice of empire, tempered by a cosmopolitan tolerance. It's the voice of a woman who has read her "Oxford Book of English Verse" but doesn't make a fuss about it, the voice of a woman who once dropped a sandwich into the Suez Canal. I wanted to leap into her place and time, but this book wouldn't quite let me. LOUISA THOMAS is a staff writer at Grantland and a fellow at the New America Foundation.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [February 9, 2014]