'I have tried 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. I believe that the experience of childhood is irretrievable. All that remains for any of us, is a headful of brilliant frozen moments, already dangerously distorted by the wisdoms of maturity.'
I am so grateful to Clara who visits here for sending me a copy of Oleander, Jacaranda by Penelope Lively and I must hastily add that Penelope Lively does go on to qualify and elaborate on the opening quote that I have used as she seeks to explore those frozen moments by turning them into language.
Her experiment is a complete success.
An autobiographical account of her childhood as an English girl growing up in Egypt and I have firstly been transfixed by the cover of this book. That is Penelope Lively taking the plunge into the sea at Alexandria complete with gourd floats strapped around her waist.
I'm sure I keep hearing the splash.
I have heard Penelope Lively speak on several occasions and each time been completely captivated by her style of speaking and her delivery.It's quietly measured, and engaging, no dramatic dashing through to get to the other end and as a listener I've always felt drawn into the weaving of the spell.
So reading this book was an identical experience and the timing on my armchair travels perfect.
Set predominantly amongst the expatriate community in Cairo, Oleander, Jacaranda is an eloquent exploration of identity and of recovered childhood memories and with it some fundamental truths emerge.
The patina of the years has settled on many of the memories tarnishing the glitter and gloss of childhood wonder and when returned to as an adult, perceptions are re-ordered and Penelope Lively does not indulge in nostalgia.Her childhood was spent largely in the company of adults and she often had to try and second guess the rules of engagement. There is confusion and sadness and frequently disappointment but ultimately an honesty prevails and there are moments of pure joy.I particularly loved the associations of place with object,smell or event
Jerusalem meant incense.
Mount Carmel a tree.
The Mount of Olives two tortoises.
Tel Aviv an overcrowded beach.
Jaffa a car breakdown.
'To this day the smell of the rosemary in my Oxfordshire garden says Palestine.'
As Penelope Lively (who now lives in London but probably keeps some rosemary in a window box) says, history was in overdrive in the years that she lived in the Middle East, so much happening so quickly that it's difficult to imagine looking back and of course a great deal of it passing a child by.
Did she see General De Gaulle in his dressing gown or didn't she?
The book ends as Penelope's parents, now divorced send her back to boarding school and an England ravaged by war.
A tall and gangly pre-adolescent,
'incongruously tall, like a bolted lettuce, socially inept, crippled by homesickness.'
This is a beautifully written book and has been the most enjoyable of reads, also reminding me, as if it were needed, what a great writer Penelope Lively is, so many thanks to Clara because this had passed me by.I am so relieved there is a sequel, Spiderweb, A House Unlocked because now I have to know more.