Treasures of Time by Penelope Lively

0140079327 Penelope Lively’s short 1979 novel isn’t as good as her own Moon Tiger, published eight years later, but then virtually no-one else has written anything better than Moon Tiger either. The set-up of Treasures Of Time has a comfortably familiar curl-up-by-the-fireside ring: the BBC is going to make a documentary about the late Hugh Paxton, a big wheel in archaeology. Well, the BBC in the 1970s did do that sort of thing. Ostensibly it’s a look at his life and the importance of his finds, especially in one barrow near his home in Wiltshire. But all this digging through his professional life might surely turn up something else…? Paxton’s beautiful, solipsistic wife Laura and her sister Nellie, now wheelchair-bound following a stroke, vie silently for stewardship of his memory. His daughter Kate – she’s difficult and knows it – and her fiancé Tom and BBC producer Tony make up the numbers. All Lively’s usual concerns – seen most obviously in Making It Up, her sort-of-autobiography exploring how her life might have turned out – are here: time and its passing, key moments recalled in the present years later, thoughts on the different pathways we could have taken. Her writing gives you as good a sense as anyone’s that history is not linear, that it is there at every point in our lives, informing the future and influencing our present even as we gaze back into the past. Free indirect speech abounds as characters explore thoughts and feelings. The raw twists of life that lie beneath the veneer are what most writers – and we – are interested in and a gathering of the privileged of Middle England is a fertile weed-bed: snobbery, betrayal, prevarication and disappointment follow. The digging metaphors aren’t overstretched. There are plenty of lovely Lively touches in her deceptively simple, restrained prose. At random: the ‘reptilian wrinkles’ of stockings on an old dear’s legs, a bungalow that ‘seemed to wallow in greenery’, a restaurant that looked ‘interestingly expensive’, a librarian in an ‘optimistically undersized sweater’. Her minor novels – and this is one – are still a pleasure. One character, not entirely without rancour, says of the finished TV documentary about Paxton: ‘It is all very skilfully done.’

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