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?
Almost 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.