One From the Archive: ‘How It All Began’ by Penelope Lively ****

First published in April 2014.

‘How It All Began’ by Penelope Lively

I had been wanting to read this novel ever since it first came out.  Thankfully, my library had a copy, so I borrowed it as soon as I spotted its pretty spine upon the shelves.  Like many readers, I really do enjoy Lively’s writing.  I have read several of her novels thus far, and my favourite is certainly Consequences.  The cover design of her newest novel, pictured, is one of the loveliest which I’ve seen in a long while.  I love the fact that several copies of Lively’s other novels can be spotted if one looks closely enough.

How It All Began is a highly acclaimed work, and many lovely review fragments have been scattered across the back of the jacket.  As her inspiration for the novel, Lively has focused upon a series of (often unfortunate) events, one of which directly causes or triggers the next, and so on – a sort of multi-causal butterfly effect, if you like.  The first of these events – ‘how it all began’, one supposes – is when protagonist Charlotte is mugged and breaks her hip.  Lively’s use of short sentences when writing of her accident works so well:

‘Trolley ride.  On and on.  Corridors.  People passing.  Right turn.  Halt.  More lifting.’

Throughout How It All Began, Lively touches upon a number of themes – ageing, education, opportunities, affairs, relationships and how they both develop and sour, community, racial integration, the notion of ‘fitting in’, making the best of bad situations, pain, healing, and the progress of time amongst them.  As is also the case with Alice Hoffman’s books (another author whom I heartily recommend), Lively writes intelligently without making her work too saturated, or at all taxing to read.  She is incredibly skilled at her craft.  I found that the domino-effect structure in this novel very much suited the style of her prose, and she made the plot work tremendously well in consequence.  The way in which she follows different characters throughout also works very well.  Lively pulled me into her story from the start, and there is not a character in the novel who does not hold some degree of intrigue or interest.  The only criticism which I can make here is that her dialogue does sometimes feel too prim and proper – almost of another era, really – for those who are speaking it.  Regardless, I would happily recommend How It All Began to everyone.

Purchase from The Book Depository


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