Excursions Of A Bibliophile

What are u reading these days?

How It All Began – Penelope Lively

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 24, 2012

In our increasingly interconnected lives, a minor incident involving individuals could lead to direct and unexpected consequences for people far removed from them. Unknown to the individual and people who get affected, the whimsical hand of randomness casts the die, the lot gets drawn and consequences unfold. Randomness has its say in the way an individual’s life trajectory gets defined and affected. Plodding on this trajectory people are wont to find their share of unexpected joys and unwanted tragedies. No man or woman can remain an island. That appears to be the conclusion of Penelope Lively’s latest novel “How It All Began”. Written with a poise, maturity and control, this novel is yet another bravura performance from Penelope Lively. I have read her Booker Winner “Moon Tiger” and also her Booker shortlisted “According to Mark”. “How It All Began” is effortlessly in the same league. Actually, I think it is a notch better than both the books

Charlotte, a retired teacher of English is mugged on London streets resulting in her temporary relocation to her daughter Rose and son-in-law Gerry’s house for a period of convalescence. Rose is personal assistant to Lord Henry Peter, an old school English aristocrat, stuck in his notion and views of twentieth century English politics but popular on lecture circuits for his first-hand knowledge of politics and personalities of his era. Charlotte’s presence at home forces Rose to skip a one day lecture tour of Henry resulting in him requesting his niece Marion to accompany him on the tour. To make place for this request, Marion cancels her appointment with her lover Jeremy Dalton by texting a message which falls in the eyes of Stella who is Jeremy’s wife. This enrages Stella who egged by her spinster sister Gill proceeds for a divorce. Marion, an interior decorator by profession meets George Harrington a London banker on the lecture circuit who gives her an assignment which at the outset looks like a much needed support to her sagging business. Execution of that assignment leads Marion deep into debt and forces her to reassess her continuation in her profession. Marion meets her childhood friend Laura who urges her to locate to a leafy little town where she meets Nigel (who is Laura’s brother) and marries him. Lord Henry Peter is humiliated on the lecture circuit and to repair his reputation he embarks on making a TV program with BBC on political quirks of his times. The attempt takes him nowhere but introduces him to Mark who conveniently uses Lord Peter to his personal purposes. Prior to her accident, Charlotte is engaged in adult literacy programs and her continuation of the same from the premises of Rose’s house brings, Anton, an economic migrant from Eastern Europe into the life of Rose. Rose gets attracted to Anton but has the good sense to keep it in control. Stella and Jeremy reconcile, Charlotte convalesces, Marion settles into her new life, Anton makes enormous progress on English language and gets a gainful employment as an accountant, Lord Peter plods through writing his memoirs and Mark continues to sponge and the unnamed mugger who unwittingly sets this chain of events rolling meets his nemesis by being mugged by another gang. As the reader is about to settle down for a happy ending Ms. Lively makes this wonderfully lucid conclusion:      

But of course this is not the end of the story, the stories. An ending is an artificial device; we like endings – they are satisfying, convenient – and a point has been made. But time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course

Penelope Lively employs a writing style that is intimate, easy, having a charming idiosyncrasy and allure of its own. The writing bobs between a careful observation of superfluous detail at one level and sudden plunge into something deep and noticeable at another level. The things she observes and writes so affectingly about are common place, universal and yet have missed the eye of the reader. I especially liked two of her brilliant observations:

She lives in an insistent present. But her thoughts are often of the past. The evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend – without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could view it anyway. The past is our ultimate privacy; we pile it up year by year, decade by decade. It stows itself away, with its perverse random recall system. We remember in shreds, the tattered faulty contents of the mind. Life has added up to this: seventy seven moth eaten years

Wow! past as our ultimate privacy… how true it is!! …………………….and

Pain is in residence. Charlotte is a pain expert, or maybe connoisseur is a better term. She can rate pain on a scale of one to ten, as required in the hospital, even slipping in a half on occasion. ‘Six and half this morning,’ and the nurse’s pen falters – the charts do not allow this. But when you have lived for years with pain you are nicely tuned to that extra notch up or down. More than that, she is familiar with the way in which pain chases around the body, popping up where it should not be. Referred pain, this is called, a sly escape from the root site of the problem. Indeed – but Charlotte sees it also pain’s malign capacity to mutate, to advance and retreat, to behave like some bodily parasite with its own agenda, gnawing away when it feels like it, going into deceptive hibernation only to spring back grinning just when you thought the going was good.

Penelope Lively uses a narrative style in which the author herself is the omniscient narrator but she also generously allows Charlotte to act as the omniscient narrator at places. There is an effortless transition between the two narrators. The character delineations are wonderfully done barring Anton’s way of speaking English, which I am not sure reflects reality. There is subtle sense of humour all through the book which adds to the writing quality. Overall, a noteworthy writing effort and a cherishable reading experience

Is it a flawless novel? I am not sure

There is one quarrel I have with this thoroughly enjoyable and well written novel which is its premise: If human destiny is determined by random events, then what is the role of free will? Does it have a role to play at all? Are we puppets reduced to vagaries of the puppeteer? We may not be able to determine our destinies but are we not responsible and accountable for the choices we make? For example; does Rose not know that the growing attraction to Anton and her near physical involvement with him a well-designed powder keg ready to get ignited in time and rock her stable married life? Similarly, the extra-marital affair between Jeffrey and Marion has the potential to derail Jeffrey’s married life. Does Jeffrey not know how his neurotic wife Stella would react if she became aware of this clandestine activity of Jeffrey? Despite knowing it, Jeffrey takes his risks. Is there no truth in the adage: As you sow so you reap?  The role of chance is certainly overrated here. I believe that for random events to affect our lives there have to be enabling conditions and these conditions are created by our conscious choices and some of these choices can lead us to outcomes that can be destabilizing. I am convinced that human affairs and trajectories cannot be completely random as they are made out to be in this novel. The role of an artist, especially writers, is to explore imponderable and quirky themes and present points of view which can be up for silent mulling or heated debates and discussions. Penelope Lively does this brilliantly well.

I am certain that this novel will make it to the longlist of Booker and if it does not…. it deserves to without fail

After thought: No other group of writers are as obsessed with the topics of “memory” and “history” as writers from UK are. I wonder why it is so?

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