Ammonites and Leaping Fish

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Ammonites and Leaping Fish, Penelope Lively, book review“This is not quite a memoir. Rather it is the view from old age.”

Ammonites and Leaping Fish is Penelope Lively’s third autobiographical work (the others are Oleander Jacaranda and A House Unlocked). Rather than a chronological account of her life, this volume contains 5 pieces of prose, mixing current reflections and anecdotes with past recollections.

Old Age

At what age are you old? This is a witty piece on our shifting definitions of old age and what it means – apparently most people think youth ends at 41 and old age starts at 59, but those over 80 suggest 52 and 68 respectively. She speculates on the political and economic implications of the growing number of people over 80. Despite her mentions of her own physical experiences of ageing, such as arthritis and deteriorating eyesight, Lively makes being 80 seem almost stylish, and not something to dread, and her dry humour and warmth are part of what makes this an appealing read.

Life and Times

This is one of the book’s more autobiographical pieces, looking back at her life from childhood to early married life and motherhood, and at personal experiences behind the news stories, such as the Suez Crisis of 1956 (Lively was born and brought up in a British expat family in Egypt) and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Her memories of how it felt to worry about the world coming to an end were very striking. She also writes about social change, particularly in relation to women and to homosexuality.


This section is partly about how age affects and changes memory, but is also about memory and writing – a lot of Lively’s fiction, for children and adults, is about how past and present, memory and history interact. She also stresses the importance of learning history at school – if not, she argues “you cannot place yourself within a context”.

Reading and Writing

“I can measure out my life in books”

I always love to know what, who, how and why writers read, and how reading has inspired their writing, and any bookworm will find plenty to identify with and probably something to disagree with or be surprised by here. As she was brought up in Egypt, her early reading was very based on classics, followed by English relatives’ Victorian books in her teens. I particularly enjoyed her description of filling her children’s pram with library books, packed in around the babies, and squeezing in reading time around the demands of childcare. Interestingly, she says that she doesn’t care to read on an ereader, but would do so for hospital or travel, and gets “bored by the exclusive defence of either paper or screen”. I love my Kindle(s) more than she does, but as in most of the book, her comments are perceptive, reasoned and elegant.

Six Things

Finally, this is the section where we learn the origin of the book’s title. Lively selects “six of the things that articulate something of who I am” – these come from around the world, and include duck kettle-holders, blue lias ammonites, an old copy of the New Testament, a replica of an Egyptian cat goddess statue from the British Museum, a Victorian sampler, and a piece of 12th century pottery showing leaping fish.

Ammonites and Leaping Fish may not have a strong narrative, or one overarching storyline, but it is warm, chatty, nostalgic, intelligent and stylish. I really love to hear the thoughts and memories of writers and of older people, and this was a great read.

Ammonites and Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively
Published by Fig Tree, October 2013
Thank you to Penguin for sending a review copy.

Buy book online
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Ammonites and Leaping Fish
by Penelope Lively

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