Penelope Lively is a novelist of prodigious talent. She won the Booker Prize in 1987 for her novel Moon Tiger (which I haven’t read, but it is in my TBR pile). Oleander, Jacaranda is a short memoir of her childhood in Egypt and eventually England. Born of English parents in Cairo in 1933, Lively lived in Egypt until the final year of World War II when she was sent back to England to live, shuttling between her maternal and paternal grandmothers until she was sent off to boarding school.
Like most children, young Penelope is more open to the experiences of the environment she lives in than are the adults in her life. The narrative contains its share of fond memories typical to a childhood memoir, but the typical childhood bit only goes so far in this particular autobiography. The subtitle of the book “A Childhood Perceived” aptly describes Lively’s approach to her material. Threaded between snippets of insect hunting and comic tales of her nanny’s attempts to home school her, Lively confronts and analyzes the impact her adult intellectual filter has on her memories. Some of it is pretty straightforward like the adult knowledge of sanitation versus her childhood desire to join local children playing in a stream. At other times Lively’s focus is more academic. Some of her observations considering childhood perceptions are offered in the abstract, and others are directly related to her own situation “growing up in accordance with the teachings of one culture but surrounded by the signals of another.” With an emotionally absent mother and an often physically absent father Lively’s Englishness is enforced by her zealously patriotic British nanny.
Lucy’s patriotism was absolute and implacable. There was English, and there was other. To be English was to be among the chosen and saved; to be other was simply to be other. There were gradations of other. American or Australian was other but within shouting distance, as it were. French, Italian, Greek were becoming unreachable; everything else was outer space. Within the unrelenting xenophobia there was a stern creed of tolerance and respect for alien practices, especially religious practice. I knew that it was offensive to stare when Muslims were at prayer, that mosques must be entered with the same reverence as Cairo’s Church of England cathedral. The world of other was different, and hence of no great interest [to adults], but you accorded it a perfect right to carry on as it did.
The blurb on the back of the book describes this as a bittersweet memoir, and there was plenty in Lively’s childhood that could fall into the bitter category. But Oleander, Jacaranda is also an interesting, sometimes sweet and sometimes humorous story. It is a contrast of cultures and attitudes that are foreign not just because of the geographical juxtaposition of an English child in Egypt, but also because it captures a moment time that I find fascinating. A good read for Lively fans, WWII English childhood fans, and Egypt fans.
(P.S.: Lively’s description of a return visit in 1988 has cured me of my interest in finding Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. According to her, barely a shred of the physical setting of the Alexandria Quartet survives. Not that she has much affection for Durrell’s work, but that is beside the point.)