It was my good fortune to meet Penelope Lively back in 2008 when I was invited to take dovegreyreader scribbles to a memoir-writing course in France. I have long been a devotee of her writing so that rates as 'one of those moments' and it was a pleasure to get to know Penelope a little better through the week, and to listen as she talked about her life and her writing.
I always make a point of travelling to hear Penelope speak if she is down this way and to say hello to her afterwards, and though I've said it here before, it is worth repeating. Penelope Lively is a consummate public speaker, measured, graceful and assured and always but endlessly fascinating to listen to. I always come away quietly inspired and renewed, informed about literature and writing, and raring to follow some new trails.
So me eyes light up when a new Penelope Lively novel arrives, especially since someone somewhere has thought carefully about this and given her book jackets a wonderfully refreshing lease of life. I've spent ages looking at this one. I want to sit in that chair because perhaps it was me who left that copy of What Maisie Knew open at the page whilst I went off and made that cup of tea. And I have pored over the books on the shelves because they are there for a reason...as is Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, all of which will become clear if you decide to read How It All Began.
Penelope Lively has taken the theory of the Butterfly Effect and translated it into human lives with all its unpredictabilities, from the moment that retired teacher Charlotte is mugged and finds herself face down on the pavement. Daughter Rose, PA to the ageing Henry, will have to be informed. In which case Henry will now need his sister Marion to escort him to that lecture he is giving in Manchester instead, which means Marion's date with her lover Jeremy will have to be cancelled. Thus does Stella hear the text arriving on husband Jeremy's mobile phone and thence do lives unravel.
And with wry, funny moments and wonderful contrasts.
The two ageing characters, Charlotte and Henry and the frailties of increasing years mixed in with the life certainties that age offers. As Charlotte reflects on her situation Penelope Lively defines her past as the 'abiding ballast without which she would capsize' and Charlotte revisits it with appreciation. Both characters are perfect mediums for an exploration of the reluctance to go gentle into that good night, as Charlotte yearns to be back living independently in her own home rather than hobbling around on crutches at her daughter's home. Henry meanwhile, resolutely trapped in his academic past, remains oblivious to any notion that time may have passed him by, or that his popularity may have waned....and for heaven's sake why on earth won't the BBC give him one of those talking heads TV series, he feels sure the nation still adores him.
The younger characters still have much to learn, the slimey Jeremy (who I really would have been happy to see buried alive under a pile of his own reclaimed marble fireplaces), the disempowered and helpless wife Stella who, bolstered by family and solicitor, embarks on a rather wavering divorce. Then there's go-getter mistress Marion, whose interior design business becomes embroiled with a con man, alongside the will-she won't-she drama of giving up on the slimey Jeremy. Charlotte's daughter Rose and shadowy predictable husband Gerry... and then Anton, the immigrant who Charlotte is teaching English, all of them at points in their lives when there is still time to change direction, and all perfectly plotted and executed by Penelope Lively as I wondered which route they might all take.
What is more compelling is the meticulous way that Penelope Lively writes it all out. Characters came to the fore and were delicately fleshed out with enlightening and subtle detail and I became increasingly engrossed as I listened in on their innermost thoughts. Any writer struggling to bring characters to life on the page would benefit from the master class that How It All Began provides. This isn't showy bells and whistles writing, this is good,solid storytelling as the vulnerabilities are quietly exposed, the chinks and cracks in everyone's armour explored and exploited to the full, and those deliciously juicy warts-and-all aspects of human nature exhibited for all to see.
There's a wonderful explanation of why life speeds up as you get older too,
'...by a psychologist, which attempted to explain the phenomenon... One persuasive explanation is to do with the changed nature of experience itself; when we are young novelty abounds. We do, see, feel, taste, smell newly, day after day; this puts a brake on time. It hovers while we savour each fresh moment. In old age, we've seen it all, to put it bluntly. Been there, done that. So time whisks by...'
And on that subject please confirm that I am not the only one who feels they have only just become accustomed to writing 2011...
It all makes me want to go back and revisit Penelope Lively's earlier books, which I haven't read for years and so I plan to do that slowly. This is a writer in complete control of her art, still very much at the top of her game and How It All Began a worthy and highly recommended addition to any Must Read list.
Any more devotees out there with a favourite Penelope Lively novel to recommend to others??