Sunday, March 06, 2011

Lively: Going Back

London: Mammoth, 1994, c1975.
122 p.

All of Lively's work seems to focus on the vagaries of memory; how remembering occurs, what the past means to us in the present, what is remembered and what is not. How memory colours and sometimes overwhelms the present. How we can't quite restore the reality of the past through memory despite our best efforts. This is another example of a childhood re-experienced through deep memory, something Lively excels at writing about.

This is published and marketed as one of Lively's children's books, but I don't think it is one. The characters are children, yes, but the narrator is looking back at an event in their childhood from an adult perspective, and the themes and preoccupations of the novel are definitely appealing to an adult sensibility. Despite that small disagreement with the proposed readership, I did love this book, as I have so many of Lively's other novels.

Two children, Jane and Edward, exist within an enchanted childhood -- even though they are motherless, and their father leaves them to go off to the Second World War. They live in an old country house called Medleycott, and are left in the care of the cook & housekeeper, a motherly woman named Betty. Joining them eventually are two land girls and a conscientious objector, Mike. Jane and Edward have nearly unlimited freedom; they explore their world and spend their days roving the countryside and interacting with a few friends, especially local boy David, who is exotic to them since he lives in a regular working class family and gets along with his parents.

Upon their father's irregular returns, nerves overtake them, especially Edward, who is a disappointment to their father as he is unsporty and uninterested in 'manly pursuits', preferring music and art. Their father decrees that Edward must attend boarding school (Jane of course is not worth any educational consideration) and this precipitates the main action of the book -- the children run away, trying to find Mike who has been moved to work at a distant farm. They are out overnight but are returned to Betty the next day. They must adjust to the realization that they can not control the trajectory of their lives, and are forced to accept their new surroundings. The enchantment is broken, and Jane and Edward drift apart; we hear the ends of their stories near the finish of the novel when Jane updates us on what has occurred since that moment.

That summary covers the extent of the plot; really not an action filled one, it is more interested in questions of detail -- what can one recall of the past? What stands out? The action takes place during the war, and yet the children are most shocked by the discovery of a mutilated rabbit's head in the quarry they have been exploring. These kind of moments remain. Who are the people around one in childhood? Jane's narrative tries to capture Betty, Edward, Mike, the land girls, even their father, but each is an incomplete picture. Mike's late decision to enlist, after first being a conscientious objector, is never really explained, simply presented. But Jane wouldn't have known the reasons behind that decision, and as a child would not have discussed it with others; people and their decisions remain mysteries to us as adults. As readers, we can try to make sense of the elements of the story from our own perspective, but Lively is more interested in exploring how the children perceived their world and how they understood and absorbed their surroundings. Misperceptions, misunderstandings and having their own perspectives and preferences ignored seem a common occurrence, and yet all they can do is adapt to the adult world and its demands.

As Cressida Connelly said of this book in the Guardian a few years ago now:

Going Back is a lyrical, moving book about a country childhood. But it also tackles important themes: pacifism, the English class system and how it was altered by the Second World War; how children are affected, morally, by events and people. The beauty of fiction is that it can address such questions without appearing to do so, through sleight of hand.

Lively once again reanimates a moment in the past in all its fragmentary recollection, with landscape and a physical house playing major roles. Her ability to enter into a child's perceptions is uncanny, and as usual the characters feel very real. She is endlessly returning to the idea that memory itself is a circular notion. I'll end with a quote that I found appealing and have copied out for myself:

Spring: summer: autumn: winter. Years are orderly things. One should be able to twitch away months from the mind, like sheets from a calendar, and say, 'Ah, yes, of course -- before that happened there was this...' But it is not so at all. In the head, all springs are one spring -- a single time when we are in a garden jungly with birdsong, blackbirds sweeping across the lawn with vampire shrieks, primeval croaks and moanings in the elms. And all autumns are one purple-fingered blackberry picking and all winters are one scramble across glass-cold lino to dress quick without washing before Betty sees and down into the warm kitchen for breakfast.

And all summers are one hay-making and raspberry time and lanes tented over with leaves and the tipping hillsides bleached pale where they have cut the corn.
As usual in my experience of reading Lively's works, this is recommended. It is a beautiful, nostalgic yet thoroughly unsentimental read.


  1. I love Lively's works for children and I'm sorry she doesn't write in that genre any longer. I think my favourites are those which have a magical element to them, such as 'The Ghost of Thomas Kemp' but even in these there is often a really serious proposition being explored. Do you know 'The Voyage of QV66', which explores the development of civilisation and asks where we went wrong, all under the guise of six animals setting out to discover Stanley's friends and relations? It's great.

  2. Annie -- no, I haven't read The Voyage -- will certainly look for it now! I love Thomas Kempe, but also love the atmospheric strength of The House at Norham Gardens & Astercote. Glad to find another Lively aficionado! :)

  3. I was just looking at this one in the children's section a couple of weeks ago (with a very different cover). I also loved A Stitch in Time and the others mentioned above, and I was considering reading one of the Wild Hunt books (have you tried those?) but ended up bringing home other things instead. One of hers will be squirming onto my stack in the next few weeks I'm sure!

  4. BIP - I really enjoyed the Wild Hunt of Hagworthy when I read it some years ago. Think when I finish her adult books and the unread titles, I will reread her children's works. I love Penelope Lively!


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