book review

‘Dancing Fish and Ammonites’ by Penelope Lively

The eminent and prolific British author Penelope Lively wastes no time in dispelling any notion that her new book, “Dancing Fish and Ammonites,” is in fact the memoir its subtitle declares it to be. “This is not quite a memoir,” she opens. “Rather, it is the view from old age . . . And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise — ambushed, or so it can seem. The view from eighty, for me.”

Lively’s view from and of old age is wry, candid, sobering. She briskly and convincingly dispatches the “stereotypes of old age . . . from the smiling old dear to the grumbling curmudgeon.” She is unsparing in delineating “the diminishment of old age,” the sense of “a body that is stalled, an impediment,” her longing for the “gorgeous pliancy” of children. She is refreshingly honest about her anxieties: “I am afraid of being boring,” she admits, and advises her peers to “beware that glassy smile of polite attention: [younger people] are searching for an exit strategy.”

Despite her position in “the tiresome holding-pen of old age,” however, Lively’s attitude is surprisingly buoyant. She no longer travels or gardens, but doesn’t miss those pursuits. Free from the need to prove or please, she doesn’t go “to anything about which [she is] unenthusiastic” and has lost the “ferocity for achievement” that drove and bedeviled her as a younger woman. She is “no longer acquisitive” and is happy to be done with the “consuming, tormenting” passions of romantic love (her husband died a dozen years ago). What remains behind in the face of loss and diminishment is a surprisingly abundant recompense: writing, family, reading — “the essential palliative, the daily fix.”


Lively suggests some fascinating parallels between the novelist’s vantage point and that of an aging person: Both are neutral observers, detached from the onrush of experience. “[A]ge has bestowed a kind of comfortable anonymity,” she writes. “We are not invisible, but we are not noticed, which I rather like; it leaves me free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch.” Moreover, an advantage “of writing fiction in old age is that you have been there, done it all, experienced every decade . . . it is certainly a help to have acquired that long backwards view.” And writing fiction has helped in turn prepare Lively for aging in conditioning her to think of her life as a narrative and to hone her “sense of an ending.”

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Unfortunately, however, the excellent material on aging is largely confined to the book’s first two chapters. What follows is only inconsistently engaging. “Life and Times,” which ranges from her childhood in Egypt to life in post-war Britain, thoughts on the Suez Crisis to reflections on the Cold War, is dry, aloof, and meandering. “Memory” is the book’s weakest chapter; belabored distinctions between “procedural,” “semantic,” and “autobiographical” memory, musings on the role of the “hippocampus,” and her “own diffident theory of memory development” never rouse the interest. Throughout these chapters, the memories Lively wills to the surface come with little feeling or evocative detail attached. The reader is kept at a distance, so that the “context of a lifetime” paradoxically covers over what we wish to learn about this remarkable woman.

The book comes back to life somewhat in its final chapters. In “Reading and Writing,” Lively offers a paean to the saving power of books, “the medicine chest of works to which you return time and again,” and behind-the-scenes information about her writing process (her “short stories have always risen from some real-life moment”). “Six Things” is a thoroughly charming account of six of her most precious possessions and a testimony to “the eloquence of objects.”

The UK edition had a slightly different title, and that change seems to be reflective of the book’s uncertain focus. The chapters vary wildly in quality, and even within chapters, a good bit is followed inexplicably by a stretch of tedious and sometimes tendentious writing. There are some marvelous observations and sharp and spiky sentences in “Dancing Fish and Ammonites.’’ But the parts are more than the whole, or, rather, the whole doesn’t cohere, doesn’t come together with satisfying unity or elegance. This is a book filled with great moments, but not a great book.

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale and Vassar and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’