dancing fish and ammonites


Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir by Penelope Lively

I wondered if I was a fraud of some sort for wanting to read the memoir of a writer for whom I actually haven't read any of her books. I've hovered around her, intrigued by her novels when I worked with them in the bookstore, but failed until now to actually commit to one.

But I'm glad to have read her memoir before exploring her backlist. Although, as she says, "This is not quite a memoir. Rather, it is the view from old age..." Although the structure feels just a bit cobbled together, I mean this in only the most positive way. The sections in my ARC (provided by Penguin/Viking) are labeled Old Age, Life and Times, Memory, Reading and Writing, Six Things. In each section, she skillfully blends social history with her own history and her involvement in and feelings about the events. Old Age, for example, includes her very personal perspectives about both the positive and negative effects of aging, and also the broader context of Britain's (and the world's) aging populations, and how elderly people have been viewed through time by different cultures. I loved her insights into how the elderly are often perceived by the younger generations, saying that while it's easy for an older person to get caught in the loop of commiserating on their own lives and stories, the reality is that they are still here with us, and should strive to be a part of what is actually happening around them, in real time and real life.

Since my copy is an ARC, I can't really quote Lively's insights in my review, which is the first time with an ARC that this restriction has truly frustrated me. I've worked around this before, but her observations are so insightful and so cleverly formed, one wants to quote from her endlessly, to make sure that her brilliance is best imparted.

Lively's writing is intelligent, elegant, affecting. Although I'd hoped that Reading and Writing would relate more of her day-to-day techniques for writing her stories, I was easily mollified by her revelations of books that have inspired, influenced, and shaped her own writing. I am now walking away not only with a list of her novels to check out but also books and authors I'm only vaguely familiar with or haven't even heard of (which is saying a lot for me), that I'd like to explore, based on her illuminating descriptions and patronage.

My favourite section of the book is the final one, Six Things. In this, she presents six seemingly random objects from her home and explains their provenance, their effect on her life, why they're her favourite things. Photographs are included. This is where the title comes from: one object is an ancient Egyptian sherd (yes, sherd - not shard - a broken piece of pottery), on which two small black fish dance. Another is a pebble of blue lias, inset with two spiraled, fossilized ammonites. She balances such ancient treasures with more common objects, like the duck kettle holders from Maine. These lovingly described objects made me think about those items that I personally have chosen to keep around, despite a tendency in the last decade to ruthlessly cull my own possessions to a minimum. Some are also potential treasures in the minds of others, but some are trinkets, valued only by myself because of my emotional history with them.

Deeply enjoyable, witty, and with philosophical insights I'll be considering from some time to come.