This collection of eight short semi-fictional works demonstrates the effortlessly transparent style that has won English novelist Lively (The Photograph, 2003, etc.) both a Booker Prize and an appreciative international audience.
Describing these stories as “confabulations” in the psychoanalytic sense of being a compound of memories and imagined events, the author takes actual bits of her life—a moment of choice or menace—and reconstructs what might have happened, had things gone a different route. These phantom existences begin with the memory of growing up in Cairo during World War II, when British ex-pats fled Rommel’s incursions by going either to South Africa or Palestine. Lively, a child of six, her mother and her nanny, went to Palestine. In the imagined work, narrated from the point of view of the pretty young nanny, a similar trio takes a ship that is torpedoed on the way to Cape Town, and the child dies. In other narratives, Lively’s fictional equivalent, age 22, dies in a plane crash in 1956; her handbag is discovered 50 years later and returned to a younger half-sister, who tries to envision that lost life. Some incarnations are funnier and more robust. In “Transatlantic,” Lively’s alter ego marries an American, lives in New England and visits the quaint home of a stodgy, patronizing aunt and uncle, where “a large dog lumbered occasionally from one resting place to another.” There is a charming modesty to this work, as Lively puts herself at the periphery of other imagined lives, or allows herself to be extinguished by chance events. Nearing the end of her eminent career, the author seems content to recede, to acknowledge the onrush of time, while showing an unobtrusive gratitude for the world she has been permitted to enjoy.
Lively’s ability to reveal character sharply and instantaneously makes this an unalloyed pleasure.