Ammonites and Leaping Fish, by Penelope Lively
The author examines the historical context of her life, what was happening in the world as she was growing up. [She was born in Egypt in the early 1930’s and spent much of her childhood in wartime Cairo.]
When writing family history we are dealing with the scope of our ancestors’ lives, from birth to death – as well as trying to organise all that happens in between, the lives as they were lived, and to make suggestions when facts are sparse.You need to create a sense of structure for the reader,though most lives do not follow an orderly progression as so much happens as a result of events outside our control – illness, war, the need to find work etc.The novelist has the freedom to structure the plot and provide a meaningful development for the characters. When writing family history use has to be made of the information gleaned through research and, where possible, interviewing family members. A structure has to be created from these disparate elements.
Lively emphasises the importance of memory to the writer, the clarity of childhood memories and how autobiographical memories are often non-sequential and random in nature.She looks back at the eight decades of her life and selecting one clear memory from each, explores where that ‘snapshot’ takes her. Lively also stresses the value of reading throughout her life, both fiction and non-fiction, and the authors who have the greatest significance for her both personally and as a writer.
In the final chapter, Lively discusses how objects may be used to start writing about the past and particular characters. Each object contains a memoir, story and history of its own.They help us to make that imaginative leap into the past.Family historians can use the idea of telling stories through objects, as Penelope Lively has done in her memoir ‘A House Unlocked’, in which the contents of her grandmother’s house came to represent the changing way of life for her family in the 20th century.