Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir

Image of Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir
Release Date: 
February 6, 2014
Reviewed by: 

“. . . there is something sad rather than enlightening about this ‘not-quite-memoir’ from a much loved, observant, feisty but fatigued writer.”

“This is not quite a memoir. Rather it is the view from old age. And a view of old age itself, this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise— ambushed, or so it can seem. One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here.”

So begins Penelope Lively’s often inviting, beautifully written, and sometimes strangely tiresome reflection on aging, her life and times, memory, reading and writing, and six things in her home that mean a great deal to her. 

Indeed, these are the five sections of her sort-of memoir, preceded by a preface that promises “a voyage around the eighty years [of her life] by way of two ammonites, a pair of American ducks, leaping fish . . . and a raft of books.”

Lively is engaging when painting a portrait of her life as a wartime child living in Egypt, then England. Readers of her generation will find her war years memories compelling and informative, as they will her recounting of the Suez Canal and Cuban missile crises. Her account of a literary visit to Russia during the Cold War is enlightening and it’s nice to learn a bit about the university years, husband Jack, and “the pre-feminist generation.”

But she is at her best, if a bit melancholic, when reflecting upon memory, and aging. “The memory that we live with . . . is the moth-eaten version of our own past that each of us carries around, depends on,” she writes. “It is our ID, this is how we know who we are and where we have been. . . . It just pops up, arbitrary, part of the stockpile.  And each memory brings some tangential thought . . . the whole network lurks, all the time, waiting for a thread to be picked up, followed, allowed to vibrate. My story; your story.”

Of aging, she writes, “What has happened to time, that it whisks away like this?” Wondering if she is envious of the young she asks, “Would I want to be young again?” Her answer: Not really…certainly not, if it meant a repeat performance. I would like to have back vigour and robust health, but that is not exactly envy. . . . And in any case, I am someone else now.”

Lively rejects travel now. She can’t face “braving Terminal Four, sitting squashed in a metal canister with hundreds of others for hours on end,” choosing instead what she calls homeland travel, “checking out the territory, discovering, revisiting, crossing my own path . . .”

And books. Books, books, books. One can understand such perspective after 80 active years, but with today’s changing demographic there is something difficult about hearing this from someone once so vibrant and productive. Indeed, a good number of her contemporaries are still biting the bullet to board metal canisters and enjoying themselves when they disembark.

Sadly, her section about a “house full of books” is disappointing, and dare one say it, a bit tedious. The craft is there, but do we really need a walk back in time through her various libraries and preferred fiction and nonfiction?  

For that matter, what is the real purpose of knowing about the Six Things she cherishes in her home along with her books? The duck kettle-holders from Maine, the pebble she picked up on a beach in Dorset with two ammonite fossils on it, the Jerusalem Bible, a sculptured cat, a sampler, and a plate shard all have backstories that intrigue the author and have meaning for her, but are those stories enough to grip the reader? 

Lively says of these artifacts that the treasures take her out of her own time and place, provide “imaginative leaps” necessary to her writer’s soul. That is something nearly everyone of a certain age can relate to. The things we accumulate and care about provide “a further dimension to memory.”

Still, there is something sad rather than enlightening about this “not-quite-memoir” from a much loved, observant, feisty but fatigued writer. 

In the end, we don’t so much dance with her fish and ammonites as wish them, their owner, and ourselves respite from the knowledge that the day will come when we, too, will have given up “that restless feeling that you must have something happen, you must look ahead, anticipate, need a rush of adrenalin,” because it is “gone, quite gone,” and we are “done with venture.”