Summary: Claudia Hampton, acclaimed author of texts on Cortez and Napoleon and fiercely independent, claims she will write a history of the world in her dying days. As she contemplates the content of her magnum opus, she traces her life (in no way chronologically) through its triumphs and tragedies.
While I struggled with this in the way I expected to (in that it required concentration and a notepad), the writing is truly exquisite. Lively has a brilliant touch with words and I am pleasantly unsurprised that this won the Booker in 1987 (I loathed the 1997 winner, The God of Small Things).
Claudia is a fabulous character. She is feisty, combative, contrary, intelligent and full of feminine wiles. She would sail through life, but that would be too easy. So she takes a lover in Cairo, and again in London. She raises a daughter who is so far removed from her as to be genetically improbable. She is very close to her brother Gordon – their sibling love and rivalry spans war and marriage. His wife seems terrible to all onlookers, yet given the narrative is sensible and sympathetic. Gordon is Claudia's alter ego and thus doesn't need the narrative to express himself. Claudia has terrible relationships with women throughout: flouting her mother's wishes, confused by and ignoring her daughter, apathetic towards her flatmate in Cairo. Reminded me of the fraught mother-daughter-son-in-law issues in the only other Penelope Lively I've read, Heatwave.
Some of Claudia's sparkle, just from the first few pages (I could easily end up quoting the whole book!):
"eclecticism has always been my hallmark"
"a kaleidoscopic view might be an interesting heresy" (when planning a non-chronological history of the world, which is what we are given in her thoughts about her life)
"my seventeenth century is not yours" – I don't quite know what to make of this. Her point is that our perception is coloured by our experiences thus far in life. I'm not sure.
Lively hits on a fascinating idea – the body as a unreliable record of history. Claudia's body records that she has given birth, that she has lost her appendix, yet her losses in love have left no physical scars. She certainly shows a vulnerability to love which is unexpected given her prickliness in the rest of the novel: "It's not you I'm afraid of, it's how I feel." We are treated to beautiful vignettes through her Hungarian foster son (of sorts): the story of how he stole into Kensington Gardens to cut her a bunch of daffodils takes 3 lines and yet stays with the reader.
I was left a little non-plussed by the ending. She receives her sweetheart's diary and quotes it, but the diary isn't as emotional as I had imagined, given his last words. We then return to the nursing home for Claudia's last moments, but they are uneventful and anticlimactic. Hence this beautiful short novel (206 pages) loses one point, but while I don't feel evangelical about it, I would recommend it as a gentle, peaceful read with a magnificent central character.
And as with The God of Small Things, a sentence triggered a memory of an English exam paper, long ago (did OCR only use Booker winners in its comprehension papers?): "Destiny. Discuss. With special reference to the careers of (a) Hernando Cortez (b) Joan of Arc (c) a resident of Budapest in 1956". Any other GCSE-in-2003 takers who remember that one? I jumped out of my reading chair (desk chair with feet ensconced in Ugg boots, up on the desk…) with the joy of recognising it!