How It All Began by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively at home
The author at her home in north London. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer
How It All Began begins in uncharacteristically violent fashion: "The pavement rises up and hits her. Slams into her face, drives the lower rim of her glasses into her cheek." Charlotte, a retired schoolteacher in her late 70s, finds that she has been mugged and relieved of her house keys, bank cards and £60 in cash. As a reader, you share her sense of shock and bewilderment – after all, one might expect to be reasonably safe from street crime in a Penelope Lively novel; though the book introduces a number of elements you wouldn't ordinarily expect to find, including East European immigrants, chocolate cream frappuccinos and errant text messages used as a plot device.

Lively still draws the line at Kindle owners, whom she recently dismissed as "bloodless nerds". But these innovations aside, the novel is mostly preoccupied with the themes of recollection and consciousness which run through her fiction as a continuous thread. One of the principal protagonists is an ageing historian (there's often an ageing historian), while Charlotte is presented less as a character than a complex composite of previous states of being: "Charlotte viewed her younger selves with a certain detachment. They are herself, but other incarnations, innocents going about half-forgotten business." It is a distinctive device which has recurred in almost every one of Lively's novels since 1987's Moon Tiger, in which Claudia (an ageing historian) reflects that she is "composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water".

Having suffered a broken hip in the attack, Charlotte is left to consider what has hit her: "This faceless person with whom she has been in a transitory, intimate relationship. Him. Or possibly her. Women muggers now, no doubt; this is the age of equal opportunities." It soon becomes apparent that being knocked down has a knock-on effect. Charlotte is forced to move in with her daughter Rose while she recuperates, which means that Rose is unable to accompany her employer, Lord Peters, to receive an honorary doctorate in Manchester. His Lordship's niece, an interior designer named Marion, goes with her uncle instead, though a text explaining her absence is intercepted by the wife of her lover, thus hastening the demise of their marriage. It all unfolds with the inescapable logic of a well-oiled farce, though every so often Lively's authorial voice intrudes to comment on the domino-toppling effect: "Thus have various lives collided, the human version of a motorway shunt, and the rogue white van that slammed on the brakes is miles away, offstage, impervious."

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