Booker-Prize winning novelist Penelope Lively talks to Beatrice Colin about destiny. history and
‘At any moment. our lives could go off in a multitude of different directions.‘ Chance. according to Penelope Lively. is always one step ahead. ready to push us around when we least expect it. In her new novel. ('lmpulm iv Sister. Lively investigates the nature of personal and global history. illustrating just how little control we have over our own destinies.
On one level the novel is a love story. between Lucy Faulkner. a hard-nosed journalist. and Howard Beamile a bumbling palaeontologist. Like star- crossed lovers. they meet on a Nairobi-bound plane which makes an emergency landing in the North African country of (‘allimbia Here. they are taken hostage by a fat dictator. and in a manner not unlike a 70s disaster movie (with even a few obligatory nuns) the passengers go through physical and mental hell. while Howard and Lucy fall hopelessly in love.
But this is no linear. unlikely romance. Lively excels at clever construction — the fragmented narrative of her Booker-Prize winner. Moon 'l'igvr. evoked the complex strata of memory — and
Penelope Lively: excels at clever construction
('lr'opurru 's Sister is similarly sophisticated in structure. Tightly written. it is split into two halves. the first of which consists of three separate histories — Howard‘s. Lucy's and (‘allimbia's — braided together. ‘The two central characters move together in the first half and also towards a country in which they're going to meet.‘ Lively says. ‘so an inexorable process is going on. unknown to us all. which we cart do nothing about. The second half is their meeting
and also all the things which happen to them in (‘allimbia — about which they can do nothing either.’
The novel is given added resonance by its fictional setting. a place somewhere between a banana republic and Libya. with the one claim to fame that it was once ruled by Cleopatra's younger and more beautiful sister. Lively concocts a highly plausible account of (‘allimbian history. right up to the violent coup taking place in the novel's present. ‘I felt ifl was inventing the contingencies of two very different lives. and the way they come together against a certain backdrop. it would be much more fun and provocative to invent the history of an imaginary country in which they would do so.’
Although such invention endows striking colour and depth. another strand in Lively's work is the use of real. tangible history with Howard's love of fossils. for example. reflecting the novel’s broader themes. 'The animals and fauna on which Howard works are very ancient creatures from Burgess Shale.‘ she says. ‘(‘ambrian fossils come from a period where there was a huge explosion in different forms of life which could have gone off in any direction according to the contingency of evolution. Instead we ended up with the fauna we have today. including ourselves. llis scientific interest kind of mirrors the discussion in
At the heart of the novel‘s witty. perceptive exploration of destiny and our lives' blundering paths are the immensely likeable characters of Lucy and Howard. both of them struggling to overcome forces everyone around them appears to accept. Will they live happily ever after'.’ Does it really matter"? ‘Il ends on an ambiguous note.‘ Lively points out. ‘lt’s not at all clear if Howard and Lucy are going to walk off into the sunset together. It‘s in the lap of the (iodsf
('leopun‘u 3' Sister is published by Viking (II [14. 9‘).
:— Risks and rewards
The Lady Artemis, watching her admirer turning into a stag and being torn to pieces by his own hounds; the food writer who can’t resist eating her own baby; twin acrobats who leap to their deaths from the summit of the Eiffel Tower; the thrilled embrace of
Perpetua and Felicity, early Christian martyrs thrown to the lions - Sara Maitland’s short-story collection, Women Fly When Men Aren’t Watching, is certainly not for the faint-hearted. And yet, with these ‘blood-strewn tales of madness and badness done to and by women, in a timeless space between the boundary of myth and history’ (as one of her
characters puts it), it is, perhaps, the faint-hearted for whom Maitland is writing, more than anyone else. One thread that ioins these bold, formally experimental, and therefore highly disparate stories together, is the
proximity of danger and beauty, of pain and joy and truth — so many of them look at taking risks, being close to death, and yet feeling alive.
‘It goes right back to Nature, really,’ says Maitland, ‘all that loveliness is really red in tooth and claw. The supposed opposites are very close. What i am trying to say is not that we should all start jumping off high diving boards, but that we should consent to the fact that we are standing on the end of one. As one of my characters puts it, it’s impossible to be safe, and if you’re not going to be safe you’d better be brave.’
Within the somewhat gentler form of the novel, Maitland offers a fuller exploration of these themes. Home Truths, published simultaneously with the stories, provides further evidence of a penchant for the dramatic scenario: the start of the book finds heroine Clare Kerslake up a mountain in Zimbabwe with a right hand so badly mangled as to necessitate amputation, mumbling to her rescuers that she has killed David, her lover and travelling companion. The bulk of the novel, however, is concerned with her coming to terms with the fact that
for over ten years she has been hiding in a disastrous relationship. Her craving for safety, thanks to which she subordinated herself utterly, eventually led her hurtling headlong into danger anyway. Not only did she trot after David into a notoriously hazardous place, her cowardice made her hate him so much that she believes herself capable of having murdered him.
Swayed by the spirits of Africa, Clare retreats to listen to the voices of her
own ancestors, her recuperation taking place in the remote Scottish Highland hunting lodge which has always been a focus for her large, close-knit Anglo-Catholic family. More dramas await her here - her vicar brother has been defrocked for indulging in satin-masochistic gay sex, her nephew kills his first stag and marches into the house smeared with blood, and her profoundly deaf niece kidnaps her artificial hand . . . But it is here also that Maitland proves she has more than shock tactics up her sleeve. With her skilful depiction of the ambiguous rituals of hunting, of religion and, above all, of family relationships, she manages to blend a succession of extraordinary happenings into an invigorating read. What is more, she provides several clues as to where we might find the strength to confront the danger she so convincingly depicts as always latent, both within and outside us. (Catherine Fellows)
Women Fly When Men Aren’t Watching is published by Virago at £5.99; Home Truths by Chatto and Windus at £15.99.
75 The List 23 April—(i May l993