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Life in the shadow of Vesuvius – the glorious return of Penelope Lively

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Penelope Lively at The Daily Telegraph Way with Words Festival 2010
Penelope Lively at The Daily Telegraph Way with Words Festival 2010 Credit: Clara Molden

 A new collection of short stories by the Booker Prize-winning author Penelope Lively has an ageless appeal, says Sarah Crown

Time is Penelope Lively’s subject in this new collection of short stories – as it has been, obliquely or explicitly, in every book she’s written over a career that’s spanned nearly half a century. The unreliability of history, the persistence of the past, the disjunction between chronology’s linear march and memory’s extempore jumble: these are her concerns now just as they were back in 1973 when she published The Ghost of Thomas Kempe, the children’s novel that won her the Carnegie Medal and launched her onto the literary stage.

The stories in this collection pick and pull at the paradoxes that time poses, considering them variously from the perspective of (among others) an economic historian, a biographer and, in the title story, a purple swamp hen (“You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii”), who speaks both as an individual and a species, switching between urgent descriptions of the daily lives of the men and women living in the shadow of Vesuvius before its eruption, and a detached consideration of the sweep of centuries that have since carried us “from that benighted age into your own”.

If the angles of approach are richly disparate, however, the protagonists who offer them – with the exception of that swamp hen – are not. Generally women, they are either well heeled, well educated or both: working as copy editors, academics by day; eyeing their partners over the sauvignon blanc and lemon garlic chicken by night.

Their anxieties, as a result, are luxuriously existential: bolstered by their (relative) wealth and intellectual capital, they have the freedom to dwell on the state of their relationships, the fate of their acquaintances, and of course the future and the past.

The worlds she creates here are superficially solid, respectable – but there is a stark contrast between external serenity and internal turmoil

But just as Lively is interested in the gaps between time and memory, so she is interested in the gaps between reality and appearance. The worlds she creates here are superficially solid, respectable – but there is a stark contrast between external serenity and internal turmoil.

In “The Bridge”, one of the collection’s finest stories, told from the viewpoint of a wife, a husband and their adult daughter, what begins as a quotidian account of the gentle disintegration of a marriage slowly shifts to reveal the devastating tragedy that triggered the collapse – and the gaps and distortions in the protagonists’ memories of it.

The only weak points in a volume that is generally thoughtful, intelligent and light of touch are the occasional moments when a tale is rounded off with too neat a conclusion. Lively is at her best when she leaves it to her readers to draw their own conclusions.

“Like onions, a person is,” muses an 18-year-old girl in one story, considering the elderly woman for whom she works as a carer, and whom she has casually dismissed as old, nothing more. “Layers. And you haven’t a clue. You just look at the top.” As an author, Lively has the gift, rare and wonderful, of being able to peel back the layers one by one and set them before us, translucent and gleaming. At 83, she’s writing as well as she ever has; time may be her subject, but it seems barely to have touched her.