Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lively Time and Houses

A Stitch in Time / Penelope Lively
London: HarperCollins, 2011, c1976.
221 p.

Set on the English shore one summer in the 70's, this story follows Maria, a dreamy only child as she and her parents take summer vacation and she discovers fossils, history and a raucous family next door. At the beginning of the tale, Maria is quite solitary, and has a habit of beginning conversations with inanimate objects, cats, and more which was amusing and clever at times.

She is fascinated by a girl named Harriet, her aged landlady's great aunt, who has left traces of her presence through her books (one on fossils which Maria claims) and photos...but only up to the age of 10. Did something awful happen long ago? Maria seems to hear events from the past -- a barking dog, a squeaky swing, and wonders why nobody else seems to notice. Here is one of Maria's dawning realizations:

Harriet is like the ammonites in the rock, she thought, not here anymore but here in a ghostly way, because of the things she left behind. The sampler, and the drawings in the book. And it came to her, as she turned to go into the house, that places are like clocks. They've got all the time in them there's ever been, everything that's happened. They go on and on, with things that have happened hidden in them, if you can find them, like you find the fossils if you break the rock.

This was a very 70's kind of story, with Maria's older parents being strangely disengaged, and the crazy family next door the kind of uncontrolled chaos that a large family could be, especially as the children are allowed to run freely all day, down to the beach, through the woods, and to wander off on their own at events like a Faire at a nearby stately home. To me, this was one of the elements that most dated it; I can't even imagine parents letting their 10-13 year olds wander off all day long in a strange setting, not these days.

I liked this story, seeing familiar themes of time and change and the peculiar staying power of inanimate objects. I also saw the familiar sharp characterization of others through our main character's perception. It was a good read, though not my favourite of her juvenile works which I've read.

The House in Norham Gardens / Penelope Lively
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Puffin Books, 1986, c1974.
174 p.

This one is an old favourite which I decided to reread. When I first read Lively, it was this title, Astercote, and The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy, which I'd found in tattered condition in an old library, many years ago. I didn't realize at the time that she also wrote adult books, which I discovered only a few years back, when my Lively fascination really began.

With this book I realize that her great strength in her more 'teen' books is the power of atmosphere. There is not that much of a plot here -- or rather, the plot isn't all that important. The fascination lies in our main character, 14 yr old Clare, and the feeling of living in a rattling old house with two eccentric aunts, or meeting 'exotic' black men in the museum and bringing them home (another thing which really dates this book; the unusual sighting of a black person in England, and her freedom as a teenager in inviting a strange man to come home with her...) She explores the Pitt Rivers Museum (a real place) and discovers even more artefacts in her own home, what with all the unused rooms that are full of junk in a house that has passed down through a few generations!

Again, there is a strong element of time's fluidity, as Clare dreams about a mask she finds in the spare room -- her great-grandfather was a Victorian archeologist and brought home ceremonial objects from New Guinea long ago -- she begins to blend past and present and comes to the realization that the past can not be preserved intact. Within so much of Lively's work there is philosophical reflection on time, memory, responsibility, history and more. This book carries on that thematic interest but is also simply engaging in its own right. The house is marvellous and Clare's observations of everyone and everything that she encounters are enjoyable and illuminating. Still such a good read!


  1. Lively sounds like a wonderful author! Thanks for sharing two incisive reviews of these "older" books. I've heard of A Stitch in Time but I haven't read it--yet!

  2. Suko, I do enjoy her work and her particular style. I like her preoccupation with time, memory & history, as I share that ;)

  3. I really can't believe I've never read Lively, and I didn't know she wrote for middle grade and young adult readers! I will have to try and find A Stitch in Time.

  4. Gavin - yes, she has some great children's books -- even one fabulous picture book that is out of print, grrr, since I love it and use it in storytimes. It's titled One Two Three Jump!

  5. I've never read Lively before though I do have a few of her books on my wish list! I think she wrote a book about what her life MIGHT have been like if she had made different decisions at various points. It sounded really cool!

  6. Aarti - yes, that is Making It Up, one of my favourites. It really shows off her brilliance, I think :)


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