How it all began by Penelope Lively – A Half Way Through Review

I’ve read a couple of Penelope Lively books before, one by force at school and the other on the recommendation of a friend. They were very good indeed. So having stumbled upon her 2011 novel How it all began in the sale section I thought I was in luck. Earlier this year I read the 1987 Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger, and I was floored by it. Such was its impact that if I’d discovered it aged fifteen then my life would have taken a very different path. I purchased How it all began with high expectations.

The first warning bell sounded with the cover. Many books get mis-packaged, that’s not unusual but this was an author of literary fiction bound up in a chick lit wrapping. In the rather prosaic photograph on the front there are piled paperbacks on view and almost all are Lively’s. It’s just an odd cover.

But I didn’t buy it for the cover.

The plot follows the butterfly effect of the mugging of an elderly lady resulting in a broken hip. Her subsequent hospitalisation and rehabilitation in her daughter’s home forces events into motion, upsetting a half dozen strangers’ lives in the process. A third person narrative sees each of the ensemble cast having to deal with the chain of consequences, some merely inconvenient and others more destructive. It flits back and forth between contemporary domestic settings giving acutely observed character portraits. I can’t fault the writing.

There’s something missing though.

The story moves too sluggishly from one cosily upholstered location to another. It has none of the harshness of Moon Tiger, there are no sharp edges to cut oneself on and no dirt and grit. Whether you loved or hated Claudia Hampton, she was an interesting character and bold enough to hang a whole novel on. I’m not emotionally invested in the people who populate How it all began. They are likeable but there’s a lack of passion in them and without that there’s little to hold interest.

Conceptually, How it all began is a great idea, a single event setting off a domino rally of domestic upheaval. If the concept was executed with the same brilliance as Moon Tiger then this would be a superb novel. It may, of course, be a slow burner and build to a dramatically fulfilling climax. I will have to keep reading to find out, sadly, so far it seems unlikely to reach that conclusion.

Dedicated to… A Half Way Through Review

Dedicated to

“To Neil, June 1964”

It’s written on the inside cover of  The Children of the New Forest by Captain Marryat, a Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd edition, no print date. 

Obviously not my book. I nicked it from a family member and it found its way onto my shelves (funny how that happens).  It was a birthday present to a very young Neil although I don’t know who from. I just love the smell of that book.

Books are quite possibly the best kind of gift. Durable, meaningful and occasionally educational; they say a lot about the person giving them and what they want from you. Personally I like to vandalise them with a few well wishes and a date before wrapping them up. Apparently I am not alone in this habit.

Dedicated to… Compiled by W B Gooderham is, as stated on the cover, a collection of “The Forgotten Friendships, Hidden Stories and Lost Loves found in Second-hand Books”.  Gooderham is a bibliophile with a penchant for second-hand book stores. Over years of collecting and buying used books he noticed that the dedications in the jackets added their own stories to the printed ones in the pages.  Laid out with a jacket and an inscription on each double page spread the collection totals over 80. There are many more on Gooderham’s blog and he’s still collecting.

The books range in age from a few years old to several decades old, some even dating half a century or more. Some dated, some not. Some written with love and affection, some cruel, acerbic and funny. Regardless of the motive the scribbles on inside covers are tiny windows looking onto a specific moment in the lives of two people.  We don’t know who they were (most of the signatures are illegible) but there’s a certain intimacy in dedicating a book.

Saddest are the unappreciated inscriptions, those published in 2010 or later and have already found their sorry way into a charity bag or second hand store. Wasted words, sentiment thrown to the wind. The reason the book was left behind or deliberately disposed of is a mystery but I like to wonder.  A simple misjudged relationship? Or something more sinister perhaps?

The older ones are less tragic and often comic.

“To John Hughes, Go shoot yourself, Henry, May ’58” adorns in the first page of Jungle Lore.

“Mum says it is disgusting: I say it may encourage you to learn the piano. Mum & Dad Xmas 1989” inside a music book of Bawdy Ballads.

On the title page of One in Twenty – A study of Homosexuality in Men and Women was written, “You leave this book alone, you filthy old man, who calls his wife “Momie” and has “done it” with an African alyah!”

I particularly enjoyed the romantic, vaguely poetic dedication in Embedded  Autonomy –  States & Industrial Transformation, Peter Evans. I know neither the giver nor the receiver so the choice of title may be wholly appropriate but an interesting choice for professing love and devotion.

Dedicated to… is a quick  and enjoyable read. Since most of the pages are images I may even finish it…

Honestly though, this is a stocking-filler book, to be giggled at by guests or as a lazy hour’s entertainment.

Or a book for a book lover prone to sentimentality when it comes to gifting printed matter.

Erm, like me then.