In 2017, I embarked on a new read-all-the-novels-by-one-author-in-chronological-order mission, this year taking up the work of Penelope Lively. Lively has written seventeen novels to date, and I’m currently reading number fourteen: Heat Wave (1996).
Lively was a writer of children’s books until she turned to adult fiction in 1977. That year, her first novel—The Road to Lichfield—was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; in 1984, she was shortlisted again, for According to Mark. She finally won in 1987, for Moon Tiger, the first of Lively’s novels I read. I’d never heard of her until finding Moon Tiger in a used-books shop in a small coastal town in Maine some years ago. I was hooked immediately.
Simply put, all of Lively’s volumes are good reads. They share certain leitmotifs but exhibit distinct and individual personalities. Lively writes with a subtle and steady pacing that keeps me engaged and wondering what’s around the corner. Her treatment of seemingly ordinary middle-class people captivates, with revelatory detail and deftly rendered backstory working in perfect balance, while also keeping us wondering about just what might be motivating her characters’ actions.
Another appealing quality is her depiction of England and of life in the U.K. She shares her love of her nation’s history, nature, and physicality through her characters. In City of the Mind (1991), for example, her protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness observations on London’s architecture reveal a passion for the city while conveying the familiar conflict between preservation of the old and introduction of the new—all this even as we learn about his recent divorce and his struggle to maintain a relationship with his young daughter.