Caroline Moore

There is nothing cosy about Penelope Lively

Though she’s often dismissed as the ‘housewife’s choice’, her selected stories show her as beady, unsentimental and thoroughly modern

Penelope Lively at the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2015. [Getty Images]

At one time, Penelope Lively was routinely shortchanged by critics. Her protagonists are often middle-class professionals — historians, archeologists, scriptwriters and the like — and her Booker-prizewinning Moon Tiger was notoriously dismissed as the ‘housewife’s choice’. Now, gods, stand up for housewives!

Lively is not a cosy read. The word which keeps coming to mind to describe these stories is ‘beady’ — though I may be influenced by ‘The Purple Swamp Hen’, in which the narrator is a wise old bird in the garden of a household in Pompeii (AD 79). A bird’s gaze is bright, speculative and disconcertingly dispassionate. Ted Hughes found the ‘attent sleek thrushes on the lawn’ to be ‘terrifying’; and Lively has more than a touch of that ‘poised/ dark deadly eye’. She elegantly pounces, and skewers; but the cruelty that thrills Hughes is largely absent. She does not regard her characters as a bird regards a worm, with cold greed: there is compassion, though of a distinctively Olympian aloofness.

What is disconcerting about Lively is the creative tension between her representation of individual experience — limited, fallible, fragmented — and her authorial voice, urbane, amused and semi-omniscient. Characters are shown from their POV — in the jargon of the scriptwriter in one of these stories, ‘Point of View’ — but are also set in the context of their class, their generation, the zeitgeist of their age. With this double perspective, Lively shows what she once called the ‘intimate debris of people’s lives’ left by the tides of history.

Metamorphosis is a collection of stories culled from Lively’s career, allowing an overview of her evolution as a writer; but the first and the last stories are new. The opening story, ‘Metamorphosis, or the Elephant’s Foot’, highlights some distinctive themes. The heroine is a character who, like Emma Woodhouse, is, all in all, pretty pleased with herself, ‘managing her own life nicely’.

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