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Ammonites and Leaping Fish, by Penelope Lively

Posted by on January 28, 2014

Cover of Penelope Lively's memoir

Cover of Penelope Lively’s memoir

Published by Penguin/Fig Tree in 2013, this memoir is sub-titled ‘A life in Time’ by its distinguished author. She describes it as not exactly a memoir, ‘Rather, it is the view from old age.’ As well as being a fascinating read for anyone who is familiar with the writer’s work, it would also be helpful for anyone trying to write family history based on memoir, or for those thinking of writing fiction based on family history.This is because Lively is so interested in the way memory works, and how our sense of time changes throughout our lives.She writes in detail about the art of fiction writing, but also discusses the difference between that and memoir.
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.

2 Responses to Ammonites and Leaping Fish, by Penelope Lively

  1. Nicola Stevens

    Thank you Susie for bring this book to my notice. I get so involved in 18th century books I forget 21st century non fiction publications!


  2. Diana Devlin

    This sounds lovely, and I usually enjoy Penelope Lively, though a little bit disappointed in A House Unlocked, which did not, I felt, do what it said on the tin. Thanks for the recommendation.

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