Staff Pick: The Novels of Penelope Lively

A Prize-winning Author’s Consistently Compelling Reads

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.

Lively avoids slickness and flashiness; she simply tells the story

Similarly, in The Photograph (2003), we see through a landscape architect’s eyes not only the gardens she creates for her clients, but also the grand old English gardens. Lively, an avid gardener herself, accomplishes this brilliantly by naming all the plants and flowers and by describing their colors and textures, so that the surroundings are made vivid and intense—again even as she spins out the narrative. The protagonist has a husband problem and a daughter problem, and her world of plants sustains her and gives her strength.

I very much like that in Lively’s work there are characters of all ages, and that love and desire aren’t solely the province of the young. In Passing On (1989), two middle-aged siblings lay their mother to rest, and are now left with the ghost of her memory as well as unexpected demons of their own to face. Next to Nature, Art (1982) takes a satiric look at a pseudo-bohemian artists’ colony, where the self-aggrandizing artists welcome gullible and needy residents who have always wanted to throw a pot or paint a painting; a very amusing set of mini-dramas ensue.

Much to her credit, Lively avoids slickness and flashiness; she simply tells the story. Sadly, her work is not very well known in the United States, and even in the U.K., few of her books have been reprinted. My collection is composed entirely of used copies, mostly from England via AbeBooks. I was thrilled to see the fascinating and revealing profile that Charles McGrath wrote about Lively in the New York Times Book Review earlier this year; I include the link for those who might be interested in learning more about her. My hope for 2018 is that your local independent bookstore stocks more of Penelope Lively’s work!

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Tiina Aleman is Commonweal’s production editor. Her translation of Estonian poet Doris Kareva's Shape of Time was published by Arc Publications (U.K.). 

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