Book review: How It All Began

Lively invites you to speculate about her characters as if they are people you know, writes Allan Massie

IT ALL began with a mugging. Charlotte, a retired schoolmistress, is knocked down in the street and robbed. Her hip is broken and when she comes out of hospital on crutches, unable to manage on her own, her daughter Rose insists she come to her house to convalesce. The incident sets off a chain reaction. Rose works as personal assistant to an elderly retired historian, Henry, Lord Peters. She is unable to accompany him to Manchester, where he is to give a lecture, because the date coincides with Charlotte’s release from hospital.

So Henry’s niece Marion goes in her place. Marion forgets to pick up Henry’s lecture notes. He suffers a lapse of memory while speaking and the day is disastrous for him. It is, however, apparently successful for Marion. She has a business renovating and redecorating flats and houses; at the lunch after the lecture, she meets a banker who has a sideline, buying property to let to rich clients.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

He gives Marion a commission, which is very welcome because there has been a downturn in her business. She is so pleased she scarcely notices poor old Henry’s discomfiture.

There are other complications. The trip to Manchester forces Marion to cancel a date with her lover, Jeremy. She does this by text message. Unfortunately Jeremy has left his mobile at home. The text is intercepted by his wife Stella. She leaps to the right conclusion and, prompted by her sister, decides she wants a divorce. This is not what Jeremy wants at all.

He is a happy-go-lucky dealer in what he calls “reclamation”, buying and tarting up furniture, fittings and objets d’art. This is how he met Marion. Jeremy likes living on the edge, fending off the demands of his bank and always confident something will turn up. His attitude to letters from Stella’s divorce solicitor is in character; he ignores them.

Charlotte, in her retirement, has been teaching adult literacy classes. Bored and restless in her convalescence, she invites one of her pupils to come for personal tuition. Anton is an economic migrant, an accountant in his home country, now working on a building site; he came to England when his marriage broke up. He can speak English well enough but can’t read it. Charlotte abandons the boring textbooks and starts him on children’s stories – first, Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. Rose brings them tea and scones. A friendship develops. Will it be more than friendship?

Lively has an admirably light way with narrative and a rare ability to juggle the many balls she has in play. She sets a scene adroitly and knows when to bring it to a close.

The economy of her writing is exemplary, the treatment of her characters sympathetic. Perhaps she is a bit hard on poor old Henry, who is presented as a pompous and boring buffoon, out of date and out of place in the world of today.

His vain attempt to recover from the Manchester disaster by seeking a new career as a TV historian is comic, but not entirely convincing. He is the only character not granted the author’s indulgence; I should be surprised if he should be the only one drawn directly from life – which may explain why he is less lifelike than any of the others.

Marion, on the other hand, is perhaps more of a fool than Lively realises. When things go wrong and her business is in trouble with her overdraft soaring to almost £30,000, she gets into a panic even though her house is worth over a million. I am not sure she deserves the happy ending Lively gives her.

It is one of the strengths of all Lively’s novels that she invites you to speculate about her characters as if they were people you knew in real life, not only to speculate but to take sides for or against them. There are novelists who never seem to know what their characters are doing when they are out of the room. Lively always seems to know this. We are given snatches of their lives and these are presented with such imagination and understanding that you feel there is a whole biography to hand.

Reviewing one of her previous novels, I wrote of her “rare knack of getting below the surface of peoples’ lives”. She has what Scott noted in Jane Austen: “the exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment”.

William Empsom wrote that “the central function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people act on moral convictions different from your own”. Writing always with assurance and without exaggeration, Penelope Lively does just this.

How It All Began, by Penelope Lively. Penguin/Fig Tree. 248pp, £16.99