Penelope Lively is one of my favourite authors and so it was with anticipation that I picked up her memoir, Ammonites & Leaping Fish. And I was not disappointed. From page one I was captivated by her writing style, her openness, her storytelling. She writes about her memories, ‘the vapour trail without which we are undone’.
Actually this is not quite a memoir; the sub-title is ‘A Life in Time’. Lively reflects on her life in five sections, leaving me with an insight into how she lived her life, her interests and, partly, her writing. She writes about Old Age, Memory, and Life and Times, ‘One of the few advantages of writing fiction in old age is that you have been there, done it all, experienced every decade.’ What she didn’t know, she imagined, used empathy, observation. ‘But it is certainly a help to have acquired that long backwards view.’
She is enlightening about her writing method. ‘I do need to have a good idea where the thing is going – I won’t have started at all until a notebook is full of ideas and instructions to myself. And I will have achieved the finishing line only after pursuing various options, wondering if this would work better than that. The reader should have an easy ride at the expense of the writers’ accumulated hours of inspiration and rejection and certainty and doubt.’
The most charming section of the book is the final one, Six Things, which is where the title of the book comes from. Lively chooses six things and explains their origin, what they mean to her, the memories they evoke. The duck kettle-holders from Maine. The blue lias ammonites. The Jerusalem Bible. The Gayer-Anderson cat. Elizabeth Barker’s sampler. The leaping fish sherd.
A delightful read. I wished it was longer.
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