There is so much to like about Penelope Lively's Oleander Jacaranda: A Childhood Perceived, a memoir of growing up in Egypt in the 1930s and 40s. I wonder why I ever waited so long to read her. I had already heard many good things about Lively's Booker winning Moon Tiger (which has been bumped up to the top of my reading pile now), but it was this small volume of reminiscences that has been sitting on my bookshelf for perhaps a decade or more that finally prompted me to begin reading her work. I say begin, as I have every intention of reading everything else I can get my hands on by her.
Lively approaches her memoir from an interesting angle. This isn't a straightforward volume of biography written in a neat linear fashion. She tries instead to recapture her childhood as she lived and saw it. It's as much about a child's perception of the world as a simple revisiting of her childhood from the distance of adulthood.
"I have tried to recover something of the anarchic vision of childhood--in so far as any of us can do such a thing--and use this as a vehicle for a reflection on the way in which children perceive. I believe that the experience of childhood is irretrievable. All that remains, for any of us, is a headful of brilliant frozen moments, already dangerously distorted by the wisdoms of maturity. But it has seemed to me that it might be possible to take these pictures in the mind--those moments of seeing--and, by turning them into language, to look both at the way in which a child sees and at how this matches up with what it was that was seen."
She writes not just about her perceptions and experiences but also of the realities of living Egypt at that time. She writes..."I was the product of one society but was learning how to perceive the world in the ambiance of a quite different culture. I grew up English, in Egypt." We were all children once but once that innocence is lost it is hard to remember just how the world once appeared. Lively tries to recapture that world when she viewed and experienced it without preconceptions. She sets off her recollections by a return visit to Egypt much later in the 1980s when she tries to find a glimmer of the Cairo she knew as a child.
Lively's father worked for a bank and her mother was quite active in the Colonial social scene to the point that she had very little interaction with Penelope. As a matter of fact Penelope was by and large raised and educated by her English governess, though for the time and place not all that surprising. She spent her early years mostly in Egypt until she was about twelve when her parents divorced and she was sent home to England to attend boarding school, very much a let down for her after a childhood spent traveling up the Nile by boat and having picnics in the desert, seeing snake charmers visit her home to remove errant snakes, and feeding hippos at the Cairo Zoo. A bookish child, Penelope was disconcerted to find out that in her school sports was more valued than an inquisitive and bookish mind.
In one particularly poignant passage Lively notes how devastated she was when Lucy, her governess, chastised her by warning her she would leave if she didn't behave.
"She was my entire emotional world. I lived alone with her, locked into a reassuring arrangement of solicitude and dependence. My parents were satellite figures--occasionally stimulating or provocative, but of a different order. Peering backwards, I cannot really see them. Lucy is vivid. She seems in retrospect to have been ageless; I know now that she was in her thirties."
Whatever the transgression, it was serious enough to have angered and appalled Lucy. A remark like this is tantamount to pulling the rug out from under a child, since Lucy was her world and the idea of her leaving Penelope was more than she could bear.
"I can retrieve that emotion quite clearly. The horror, the desolation of abandonment. Goodness knows what I had done. In fact, Lucy threatened to pack her bags quite frequently, but this occasion must have been of a different order. And I see now what lies beyond it, why it is so potent. I see what it is about--the insecurity of children brought up by those who are not their parents. And I see too that Lucy was wrong to trade on this, however fearful my transgression."
Of course as an adult she knew Lucy wouldn't leave, that Lucy probably knew what had been going on with her parents and likely stayed only for Penelope. However peripheral her parents were, parents don't walk out, but Lucy could have and it would have been heartbreaking.
I really enjoyed reading this and as much as I loved the bits about how memory works, it is perhaps reading about this very exotic place and this particular period that I found utterly fascinating. Lively was born into a reasonably wealthy family with what seems to have been a high social ranking. She happened to be in England when WWII broke out (and had returned by V-E Day in 1945). Her mother and other relatives were vacationing in Europe without a care in the world in the fall of 1939 when they realized they needed to return with haste. Alternately, near the end of the war when she was in Cairo the German advance seemed particularly threatening she and her mother and Lucy traveled to Palestine. She notes how unconcerned everyone seemed. Although it was the waning days of Colonial life in that part of the world, there was still a strong sense of entitlement.
Returning to England Lively must have experienced a huge sense of dislocation, and certainly the Egypt she knew of the 30s had long since vanished when she returned half a century later. This was a real pleasure to read and I'm not sure that I've conveyed everything this slim volume contains. If you're interested in that particular part of the world this is a book to keep in mind.