‘Oleander, Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived’ by Penelope Lively ****

I have been wanting to read Penelope Lively’s childhood memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda, for such a long time, and it was thus one of my first choices on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge list.  I have read and enjoyed several of Lively’s novels in the past, and was keen to learn about the woman herself.  Where better to start than with her own memories of her childhood, lived in comfort in Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s?

9780141188324Almost every review on the Penguin paperback edition which I purchased spoke of how ’emotive’ Lively’s memoir is.  The Washington Times writes: ‘She sees herself with clarity as both child and adult, a rare accomplishment indeed’.  The Times believes her autobiography to be: ‘Unsentimental yet so vividly evocative that you can smell the dung, the jacaranda and the oleander.  It offers potent glimpses of British colonial life…  The result is a wise, colourful and touching tale.’

In her modest preface, Lively writes: ‘My childhood is no more – or less – interesting than anyone else’s.  It has two particularities.  One is that I was a product of one society but was learning how to perceive the world in the ambience of a quite different culture.  I grew up English, in Egypt.  The other is that I was cared for by someone who was not my mother, and that it was a childhood which came to an abrupt and traumatic end.’  Indeed, after living all of her early life in Egypt, and most of it just outside Cairo, Lively had to move to England after the Second World War, following the divorce of her parents; to the young Penelope, they are ‘peripheral figures… for whom I felt an interested regard but no intense commitment’.  Of course, her nurse, Lucy, who is variously described as ‘the centre of my universe’, is not part of her new life.

Lively’s aim in Oleander, Jacaranda was to ‘recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood – in so far as any of us can do such a thing – and use this as the vehicle for a reflection on the way in which children perceive.’  Whilst she recognises that her child and adult selves are linked in many ways, she is able to separate them for the purposes of her memoir.  She writes: ‘As, writing this, I think with equal wonder of that irretrievable child, and of the eerie relationship between her mind and mine.  She is myself, but a self which is unreachable except by means of such miraculously surviving moments of being: the action within.’

At the forefront of her exploration into childhood is the untrustworthy element of memory: ‘One of the problems with this assemblage of slides in the head is that they cannot be sorted chronologically.  All habits are geared towards the linear, the sequential, but memory refuses such orderliness.’  With this constantly in her mind, Lively presents both her recollections, and the historical facts, of spending her formative years in such a turbulent and fascinating period, and a place so different from the England that she would later call home.

The descriptions in Oleander, Jacaranda are sumptuous.  When talking of her daily routine, for example, she writes: ‘The daily walks with Lucy are merged now into one single acute recollection, in which the whole thing hangs suspended in vibrant detail – the mimosa and the naked leaping children and the grey mud-caked threatening spectres of the gamooses.  The pink and blue and lime green of children’s clothes, the white of galabiyas, the black humps of squatting women.’  Lively’s observations of her young self feel both thorough and beautifully handled: ‘No thought at all here, just observation – the young child’s ability to focus entirely on the moment, to direct attention upon the here and now, without the intrusion of reflection or of anticipation.  It is also the Wordsworthian version of the physical world: the splendour in the grass.  And, especially, Virginia Woolf’s creation of the child’s eye view.  A way of seeing that is almost lost in adult life.’

Throughout Oleander, Jacaranda, Lively explores our capacities for recollection.  Her memoir is one which feels balanced and measured from its opening page.  There are few moments of drama, or melodrama; things happen which make a great impression on Lively as a child, but the importance of the everyday shines through.  Lively’s voice is charming and beguiling.  It is fascinating to see those moments where her childhood memories and adult eyes meet, particularly when Lively discusses her return to Egypt in the 1980s.  Oleander, Jacaranda is honest, warm, and intelligent.  Lively somehow manages to make a very specific period of her life feel timeless in her depictions, and in consequence, her memoir of childhood is a joy to read.

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Flash Reviews (14th April 2014)

‘The Ice Queen’ by Alice Hoffman

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman ****
Alice Hoffman’s The Ice Queen is another of the library books which I borrowed during my first trip there for quite a while.  I have long been a fan of Hoffman’s work, and was so pleased to see that my branch stocks so many of her novels, many of which I shall be borrowing in the future.  She somehow manages to write incredibly intelligent novels without making them feel too heavy in their style or tone, most of which can be read in just a few hours.  A review on the book’s blurb writes of Hoffman favourably, and states – quite rightly, I feel – that her work can be compared to that of writers like Carol Shields and Alice Munro.  It has the same brand of distinctiveness and power which their writing is suffused with.

The Ice Queen is intriguing from the very first page.  It centres upon a female narrator, who is struck by lightning after wishing it upon herself.  Everything becomes the ‘colour of ice’ in consequence.  She works a librarian and moves from New Jersey to Florida after her grandmother’s death, in order to live closer to her brother, who becomes her only living relative.  Our protagonist believes that she is cursed, and that she wished death upon her mother when she screamed in a childish fit of fury that she never wanted to see her again.  Her mother was killed in a car crash that very night.

The way in which the narrator remains nameless works well.  She is a strong enough presence that she does not have to be defined by a name, and an almost enigmatic quality surrounds her because of it.  The Ice Queen is a wonderfully absorbing novel, and I for one am so glad that Hoffman is such a prolific writer.

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Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie ***

Apparently, Death Comes as the End is the only one of Agatha Christie’s novels to have an historical setting.  It is set in Egypt – on the West Bank of the River Nile at Thebes, to be precise – in 2000BC, ‘where death gives meaning to life’.  The novel begins with a widow named Renisenb, who has returned to her childhood home with her child, Teti.

From the very beginning, Christie sets out the familial relationship within Renisenb’s home rather well.  Unlike some of her other novels, the murder in Death Comes as the End does not come to the fore until around a third of the way in.  Instead, the sense of place and the building of the characters have been focused upon.  Whilst the setting has been well considered, the novel does not feel as though it has been entirely fixed in time.  Parts of it seem suspended without any real, concrete details, and could quite easily relate to a different time period entirely.  Nothing really made it feel as though it was fixed within Ancient Egypt, as I was expecting it to.

Whilst the plot of Death Comes at the End was rather clever, I must admit that I did guess it whilst it was still quite a way from the end.  It is not my favourite of Christie’s works by any means, but it was interesting to see how an historical setting both inspired and affected her work.

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‘The Lessons of the Master’ by Henry James

The Lesson of the Master by Henry James ****
I really enjoy Henry James’ work, and spotted this lovely Hesperus edition quite by chance in the library.  Whilst I had heard of it, I did not know anything about the novella before I began to read.  Colm Toibin’s foreword provides a nice little introduction to the story, and also sets out the details which drove James to write.  The Lesson of the Master was first published in 1888, but parts of it feel as though they are of a far more modern era.

The story’s protagonist, Paul Overt, is an ambitious young author, who has had work published.  The ‘master’ of the novella’s title is an established and revered novelist named Henry St. George, who quite happily decides to take the surprised Paul under his wing, so to speak.  I much admired the way in which the characters throughout were portrayed, Paul particularly.  He is such a believable creature that one could imagine walking around a corner and bumping into him as he sauntered out of his club.  The way in which he presents different characters is quite splendid.  When speaking of Henry’s wife, James writes: ‘She looked as if she had put on her best clothes to go to church and then had decided they were too good for that and had stayed at home’.

James has such a marvellous grasp of language, and demonstrates his skill tremendously throughout.  The Lesson of the Master is a very character driven work.  Whilst part of it is quite a tasteful love story of sorts, it is still ultimately an impression of the cast of protagonists which one comes away with.  The novella is an enjoyable one; a great classic work which can easily be read in just a couple of hours, and which will leave you with a thirst for James’ other work.

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