How It All Began Penelope Lively

Fig Tree, pp.248, 16.99

Penelope Lively’s new novel traces the consequences of a London street mugging. As the culprit sprints away with a handbag, the victim, Charlotte, a retired widow, falls and cracks her hip. Her daughter, Rose, personal assistant to the once-eminent historian Lord Peters, is meant to be in Manchester to help her employer give a talk on Walpole.

When Rose bails out, Peters turns to his own daughter, Marion, an interior designer in hock to the bank. At the pre-talk lunch, she has the good fortune, so it seems, to meet a venture capitalist, who offers her a gig doing up luxury flats. Less fortunate is her married lover, Jeremy, whose wife kicks him out when she spots a text on his mobile from Marion, cancelling a tryst on account of having to head north.

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An all-seeing narrator inhabits every point of view in this gentle carousel of middle-class life. Old age, middle age and youthful ambition (a post-doctoral striver pens a monograph while pretending to sort out Peters’ papers) are each portrayed more or less warmly, as are diverse professional habitats, from a building site to the Beeb.

Little is immune to shafts of satire, even if the female characters tend to be safer than the men, whose egomania is generally hung out to dry. Jeremy, always oblivious to the sound of his own voice, boasts of how he fired an underling and took on ‘a boy as work experience, so I needn’t pay him at all’.

Such remarks root the story in the cash-strapped here and now. The one male character who is never a figure of fun — or is not meant to be — is Anton, an economic migrant from central Europe. A builder, he attends Charlotte’s weekly adult literacy class in the hope that it will help him find a job more suited to his qualifications as an accountant. Charlotte (a former teacher) gives him private tutorials while her bones heal. Not-so-happily-married Rose soon notices Anton’s dark eyes. Walks in parks follow coffee in Starbucks. ‘You are kind to foreigner,’ he says. Rose mentions her son James, a banker. ‘He is banker? He is one of the people who make the credit crisis?’

Anton learns English by reading children’s books and the Guardian. Someone tucks into ‘crispy pork shoulder, celeriac purée, wild mushroom and poached egg’. Walls are daubed in ‘meticulously selected shades of Farrow & Ball’. Even when Marion’s investor cops a jail term for insider dealing, it all feels very cosy. Charlotte listens to the news (‘people picking their way through floods on the other side of the globe… children with stick limbs and swollen bellies’) and thanks her lucky stars. All but excluded from the novel’s wide ambit of sympathy is the mugger himself. He surfaces only in the last paragraph, the force of which may surprise the reader who would see this nimble, unpretentious entertainment as anything but shrewd.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book review, Fiction, Novel