• Saturday, February 24th, 2018

The British writer, Penelope Lively, was born, Penelope Low in Cairo, Egypt in 1933. Her father, Roger Low, worked as a bank manager at the National Bank of Egypt and her mother was a housewife. At the age of twelve, when her parents divorced in 1945, Lively was sent to a boarding school in Sussex.

After obtaining her school certificate, Lively’s father moved her to a crammer followed by St. Anne’s College, Oxford to study modern history, where she graduated in 1954. Lively met her future husband, Jack Lively, at Oxford and in less than a year they were wed. Their marriage produced two children, lasted forty-one years and ended with the death of the academician, Jack Lively, in 1998.

Penelope Lively is a prolific writer; she has written children’s fiction, adult novels, three autobiographical books and a collection of short stories. She also writes frequently for several British national newspapers: The Sunday Times, The Observer and the Times Educational Supplement. She has also written radio and television scripts and has been the presenter of a BBC Radio Four children’s literature programme.

She has won the Carnegie Medal, the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, the Booker Prize for fiction and the Southern Arts Literature Prize. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of PEN and the Society of Authors. Penelope Lively was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1989, was made a Commander of the British Empire in 2001 and Dame Commander of the British Empire in 2012. She lives in North London.

How It All Began, published in 2011, is Lively’s twenty-second novel, it is narrated by the central character, Charlotte Rainsford, an old-age pensioner in her late seventies, a widow and a former English literature teacher. After her retirement, she becomes an adult literacy educator on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“It all began” with a flying start on the fourteenth of April when Charlotte was mugged in London. Her banker cards, sixty pounds in cash and her house-keys were in her handbag which was snatched from her arm. It all happened very fast while Charlotte was walking down the street, causing her to fall and leaving her with a broken hip. This event triggers many others in a crescendo, thwarting seven people’s lives.

It affects the middle-aged Rose, who has to temporarily accommodate her mother and look after her until she recovers from her accident and becomes autonomous again. Consequently, Rose won’t be able to travel to Manchester with her employer, the seventy-six-year-old historian academic, Lord Henry Peters, who has to give a speech about eighteenth-century politics at a Manchester University annual event. Having a lecture by a visitor of distinction is an event much anticipated by the university.

Rose is replaced by Lord Peters’ niece, Marion, an interior designer, who will accompany her uncle to Manchester. Marion sends a message to inform her lover, Jeremy Dalton, about her unexpected trip. Jeremy’s wife, the emotionally unstable Stella, will by chance see the text message on her husband’s mobile phone, realises his adultery and asks for a divorce.

Lord Peters who, through the years, has been relying entirely on Rose, forgets to take his lecture notes to Manchester or ask his niece to bring them and when called to the lectern, finds that his memory fails him. He is unable to remember any of the notes he had prepared so meticulously for this event about eighteenth-century politics, which is his speciality. An embarrassingly catastrophic situation for such an egocentric, self-admiring academic in front of the distinguished university audience.

During the university lunch, Marion makes the acquaintance of George Harrington, who works in a financial institution and invests his money in properties which he buys to let. He entrusts Marion to decorate one of his apartments. Victim of the recession added to the bankruptcy and imprisonment of her client, George Harrington, Marion is broke. She has to sell her house and move out of London to pay her debts to the bank.

Charlotte who is recovering in her daughter Rose’s and her son-in-law, Gerry Donovan’s house, is receiving one of her students, the East European economic migrant, Anton, every week. Anton works on a building site and comes for private lessons to improve his English reading and speaking skills in the hope of finding an accountancy job – his profession back home.

Rose and Anton, who are introduced by Charlotte, develop a secret warm-hearted relationship that contrasts with Rose’s dull life with her husband, Gerry. The outings with Anton don’t go beyond coffees at Starbucks, helping him find the right presents for his mother or having walks in London parks.

Due to her accident, Charlotte is reluctantly house-bound, which allows her to reflect upon her past life as well as her present one with wisdom on hindsight, acknowledging her current frailty and wretchedness due to her old age. The twilight years bring with them aches and pains, nonetheless carry some pleasurable little compensations in the way of a reward.

Charlotte is most probably the embodiment of the aged author who also, similar to her protagonist, considers reading as an essential part of her daily routine and no doubt has to put-up with the unpleasantness that old age inflicts.

An engaging story deftly written, sardonically witty and without frills, portraying a lively array of different contrasting, colourful, perfectly woven characters and their reaction to the happenstance primarily created by one occurrence; a completely unknown person to them, namely: Charlotte’s mugger.

The novel is humorous in parts, warm-hearted and reflective in others with a befittingly well wrapped-up ending despite the author saying: “An ending is an artificial device; we like endings – they are satisfying, convenient (…) But time does not end, and stories march in step with time (…) These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course”. Lives that fleetingly barge into each other before moving apart from one another.

• Thursday, February 01st, 2018

Following the meeting with The Book Club ladies of the United Nations Women’s Guild in Geneva on Friday, 26th January 2018, the author, Selina Siak Chin Yoke, kindly offered to answer questions about her book: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, which we reviewed and discussed.

Here are the questions we asked and Selina Siak Chin Yoke’s answers:

Some of the ladies found the story relatable and were reminded of troubled times in their respective countries. We wondered about the reason why you chose to frame the narrative and themes of the novel in an early 20th Century setting. We also asked ourselves if you thought these issues as relevant in a contemporary context thinking of Amin Maalouf’s book: Murderous Identities.
When I started, I wanted to tell the story that was familiar to me, inspired by my great-grandmother’s life. It so happened that big events in her life took place around the turn of the 20th century, which coincided with a period of huge change everywhere. Malaya felt those dramatic changes. And a backdrop of drama is always useful in fiction!
I think the themes in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds are very relevant to our lives today, and many readers whom I’ve met at book clubs or who’ve reviewed the book have said this.
They can relate to the issues in the relationships they have with their own mothers and their children; the friendships the protagonist has; even the struggles Chye Hoon feels between clinging to tradition and moving forward with the times. And they find themselves asking some of the questions she asks. That was what I found while writing the book. People across cultures and time are more similar than we think.

In a general sense, concerning the dichotomy of tradition vs modernity, do you agree with Chye Hoon’s view, or are you closer in spirit to her eldest son’s outlook?
I’m personally in between the two. I also believe that the way we view tradition versus modernity evolves with age. Or perhaps that’s just me! I was more gung-ho previously about embracing all things new, now I tend to be more sceptical.

A major theme of your book is the overcoming of a patriarchal society and the growth of entrepreneurial spirit in women. Did you set out to write a feminist novel or did these ideas emerge organically?
As someone who feels unequivocally about female empowerment, I choose to create strong female characters. This doesn’t mean that the women in my stories will always be larger than life, the way Chye Hoon is. But they will have the sort of inner strength that’s often overlooked in this world. And they will sometimes do ‘unacceptable’ things!