Ammonites & Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively


Subtitled ‘A Life in Time’, Penelope Lively’s Ammonites & Leaping Fish was published in 2013, when she was 80. She looks back on what she has done and seen over the decades, from her earliest days in wartime Alexandria to her old age in Islington, examining personal experiences (motherhood, friendships) and wider trends and events (Suez, the legalisation of homosexuality). After all, memory ‘is not just a private asset, but something vast, collective, resonant’. The Egypt of her childhood often comes up in Lively’s fiction (not least in the peerless Moon Tiger) and she has written an entire volume about it (Oleander, Jacaranda), but this is different. As she herself writes: ‘This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age’. It is a rambling book, quite conversational, occasionally repetitive. Initially I thought this meant her editor had taken an extended break from duty but then it dawned that this in fact served the text well: it is as though a highly intelligent, thoughtful, well-travelled grandmother is chatting to you. The odd meander is charming and real. Of course, all Lively’s writing is shot through with time: how memory works, how time is not a linear entity stretching from A to B but can be accessed by all of us, at any moment, constantly informing the decisions we make, the paths that we do and do not take…Her non-fiction novel Making It Up was specifically about this duality, in fact. In the final section of Ammonites, she takes a short tour through her life using six, very personal objects. One of these is a pebble which is about 200 million years old, picked up on a Dorset beach, containing the fossils of two ammonites. Not surprisingly, Lively likes archaeology and palaeontology. Standing on the same beach at Charmouth recently, it is indeed awesome (in the non-teen American sense of the word) to think that the sliding black cliffs above you once – a very long time ago – formed the sea bed. Palaeontology, in particular, is about ‘deep time’, she thinks. ‘It puts you in your place – a mere flicker of life in the scheme of things.’ Our existence is, I suppose, as simple as that.



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