Penelope Lively’s 2014 memoir Dancing Fish and Ammonites is another of those books like Souad Mekhennet’s I Was Told to Come Alone, Rana Mitter’s Forgotten Ally or Krista Bremer’s My Accidental Jihad I once borrowed from the library only to returned unread. Only later did I try again and was successfully in reading them. Twice before the book’s cover art caught me eye, seducing me into borrowing it. But alas, on each occasion I eventually returned it completely unread. But last week I was in the mood to read something representing the United Kingdom for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge and after spotting Dancing Fish and Ammonites in the autobiographies, biographies and memoirs section of the public I decided to give it another shot. This time around however I whipped through Lively’s memoir in only a few days.
Dancing Fish and Ammonites isn’t a memoir in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s more a reflection upon growing old, books and writing. Chances are if a talented writer lives to the age of 80, not only will that writer have lots to say, chances are he or she will say it well. In this regard Lively is no exception. Dancing Fish and Ammonites is a testimony of her long and accomplished life. And told well.
I enjoyed reading about her childhood. Though English through and through, Lively was born in Cairo in 1933 to equally English parents. She remembers the Egyptian capital feeling Arab, yet at the same time European, just as Lucette Lagnado did with her family memoirs The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and The Arrogant Years. During World War II with Rommel’s army bearing down, her father stayed behind and she and her mother were evacuated to British Palestine. Sadly, a few years after the War ended her parents divorced. Young Penelope, no longer a child but nevertheless on the cusp of womanhood moved with her mother to England. Eventually, after graduating from Oxford she would go on to be one of England’s most celebrated and prolific Post-War writers.
Lively comes across as highly erudite, intelligent and charming. I found Dancing Fish and Ammonites a thoroughly British book, both in style and content. (I was pleased to see Melvyn Bragg, host of one of my favorite BBC podcasts In Our Time in a brief cameo.) Perfect reading for any decent Anglophile.