Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Berenice: Cleopatra's forgotten sister

Cleopatra's Sister / Penelope Lively
New York: HarperPerennial, c1994.
281 p.

My first Lively of the year, this novel was not what I had expected at all. In fact, it made me think of a blend between Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and Madeleine L'Engle's Troubling a Star - the situation of a hostage taking from Bel Canto, and the menace and history of an imaginary dictatorship from Troubling a Star. The tone of this book also seems to be a combination of both.

The light style of the narrative meanders between the lives of Howard Beamish (paleontologist) and Lucy Faulkner (journalist), and intersperses the history of the country of Callimbia, located somewhere between Egypt and Libya. The book focuses throughout these three strands on one of Lively's favourite preoccupations: the contingencies of history. How did Howard end up a paleontologist? By coming across a fossil on a dull family holiday as a child. And Lucy? Well, she had her own childhood responsibilities which pushed her in the direction of journalism. Callimbia, meanwhile, began in the far distant past as Cleopatra's sister Berenice settled there after being forced out of Egypt. Due to her beauty she kept Marc Antony there just long enough to affect the course of history - and everything that happens is pointed out in hindsight as being the key moments which led to the present dictator's position. Randomness rules in this view of history.

But as all three strands come together, the story suddenly picks up and instead of just drawing connections between how things have come about, the narrative becomes quite serious and suspenseful. Lucy and Howard just happen to be on the same flight to Nairobi, their plane just happens to have serious engine trouble while in the area of Callimbia, which just happens to be undergoing a major coup attempt. The plane must land. The British passengers on the plane are singled out to be held hostage in return for Britain sending the Callimbian rebels who have fled to England back to Callimbia. This leaves a random group of strangers prisoner in Callimbia with no information, no knowledge of what is to happen to them. They develop a bit of group solidarity, with individual foibles still delineated sharply. Howard and Lucy also develop their own romantic relationship, and that part of the story felt a little forced to me, actually. As if the contingencies had declared it should happen thus it happened. Still, the idea behind it all was compelling and endlessly fascinating. And the second half of the book ratcheted up to such a level of tension that I did what I never do while reading -- I flipped ahead to see what was going to happen, I couldn't stand the suspense any longer.

While this wasn't my favourite Lively so far, I enjoyed it a great deal. Her whimsical history of Callimbia turns dark suddenly and surprisingly and there is a lot more depth to the story than appears at first glance. As usual, my own abiding interest in history and how it is made, as well as how people end up where they do, makes Lively's writing infinitely appealing to me. Worth reading if you are a Lively fan.

Other opinions:

A man's eye view at The Civil Librarian


  1. I didn't even know that Cleopatra had a sister.

    And I love the new header!

  2. I loved this one without reservation. It was so tightly drawn (though you're right that the romance might have been too much so). And I skipped ahead too, couldn't help it.

    How I do love our Ms. Lively!

  3. softdrink - I think there were quite a few in there somewhere, I remember one tried to poison her when they were young...ah, sibling love :)
    And thanks on the header comment, I wasn't sure if it was too busy or not but I like it.

    Kerry - oh, I'm glad to hear it! I liked this one a lot but didn't absolutely love it the way I have the last few. But I do love the way she looks at history & its workings. I have another on the stack to start tomorrow... can't go long without a Lively.

  4. This does sound quite a bit different from the Lively novel I read (Moon Tiger), except for the interest in history. It's fun to watch how a writer plays with the same preoccupations in very different works.

  5. Dorothy - exactly - it reassures me that there is never a tidy ending of one's preoccupations in just one novel. ;)


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