Here in the U.S., the new book by Penelope Lively is called "Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir." But for British readers, the subtitle is "A Life in Time." Reviewer Ellah Allfrey says the British title is more true to the shape of the book.

ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: Lively was born in Egypt where she spent what seems a contented if solitary childhood. She made paper dolls. She read books and she played in her beautiful garden in Cairo. But towards the end of the Second World War, she was sent to boarding school in England. She missed the warmth and bustle of North Africa. She writes of negotiating an awkward adolescence, of life as one of the few women in her university class, of marriage and motherhood.

And then, at the age of 37, Penelope Lively began establishing herself, first as an author of children's books, then as a literary novelist. But even though her 80-year stint on earth has been fascinating, Lively resists an linear narrative. In "Dancing Fish And Ammonites," She's more interested in understanding the way memory works. If you want to know about me, who I am now and how I got here, she seems to say, here it is.

The result was, for me, an afternoon spent with a witty, gentle-humored and sometimes cynical elder. It was a gift. I'm sure that each reader will love a different chapter. For me, it was reading and writing. I loved how Lively describes her childhood, reenacting the "Iliad and the Odyssey" but with the stories improved. Tedious Helen gets sidelines with the author's namesake, Penelope and the action is updated.

Achilles gets an infantry tank and a machine gun. There are also thoughts on the Suez crisis, feminism, the Dewey decimal system and musing from the keeping of books. I can measure out my life in books, she confides. They stand along the way like signposts. Only in the hands of an experienced novelist could random subjects form such a deeply coherent and satisfying conversation.

With every shift in topic, I found myself determined to keep up to understand the connections she made. How can you not be involved, Lively admonishes. These are your times, your world, even if those events are on the other side of it. And as for the narrative, you are a part of that, for better or for worse.

BLOCK: That's Ellah Allfrey reviewing "Dancing Fish And Ammonites," by Penelope Lively.



You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.