An essay on Penelope Lively's 'Oleander, Jacaranda', by A Level student, Judith Rushmer.
(Although this wasn't the exam essay, the candidate did get an overall 'B' grade in the real exam. The time taken to write this was about an hour, as opposed to 45 minutes in the exam)
Question: Do you think Penelope Lively succeeds in her attempt to re-create her vision of childhood in her book 'Oleander, Jacaranda'?
This is a short novel (only 180 pages) that incorporates three large, complicated issues. Penelope Lively describes aspects of her childhood, discusses the philosophy behind these 'frozen moments' as she calls the incidents she recollects and gives a thorough portrayal of Egypt in the nineteen thirties and forties.
Lively uses a number of different techniques and language skills in this rather compliacted novel. I will discuss the way she attempts to achieve this and will summarise with my personal opinion as to whether or not I think she succeeds.
The author writes about the 'brilliant frozen moments' that are the static images from her childhood that are lodged firmly in her' head. I think the statement she makes regarding these 'moments' in that they are 'distorted by the wisdom's of maturity' is an accurate point to make. The images are presented in the present tense giving the feeling of realism to her childhood perceptions. I think Lively demonstrates her passion for these memories in the language she uses to describe them.
The images are not always pleasant ones. For example, she writes about her fear of the animals that she doesn't understand: 'The stuffed form of a Nile catfish of great size' leaves her 'shuddering'. Her fear of the ferocious creatures that inhabit the environment she lives in are brought alive by her vivid desciiptions. The lion house where the animals 'slink to and fro' harbours a potent 'unmistakable' smell, which she imagines she smells at Bulaq Dakhrur.
Here she illustrates her fear by the use of clipped short sentences that are questions as she is obviously uncertain for her safety as she'belts towards the house, given wings by primeval terror'. I think it is apparent that the frozen moments have remained with clarity in her mind due to the enormous emotional content of each one.
She remembers leaving Bulaq Dakhrur and discovering the kit bags of the boys who never came back. At the beginning of Chapter 4, at the young age of six, she is taken by her mother (another unpleasant event linked with her mother) to a'pre-Dynastic burial' where she views a skeleton lying in the 'foetal position'- a startling juxtaposition of life next to death.
At other times, she uses sensual descriptions to emphasise a single moment- 'the blurry chintz' the 'clacking needles' all sounds and textures and smells that engulfed her in her 'filmy white tent'. All children get stomach ache and these familiar childhood scenarios are vividly recaptured in her book. We are able to relate our own childhood memories to those of the author.
Humour is employed to successfully convey several of her childhood perceptions, particularly those regarding sexuality (Ch3). I can certainly remember regarding my parents' sexuality with a confused yet accepting mind! Lively made me laugh out loud when she describes the 'black hole' in the middle of Lucy's chest and the 'seaweed growing out of the odd arrangement at the base of her fathers torso'. It is effective for her to explain (in adult terms) the precious ability of young children to see the world 'without preconceptions', accepting all without question.
Penelope Lively was obviously a lonely child. In Egypt she is segregated from other children and those she does see are obviously different from her. The native children are naked and the women are 'up to their elbows in dung'. The squalor and poverty is described and again, we learn that as a child she accepted the world unquestioningly albeit that her own is so startlingly' different. She herself is not accepted by the people and feels excluded, like an 'alien'. Surprisingly she is not intimidated as 'everyone noted' herself and Lucy walking through the landscape of'perpetual motion'. However in contrast to the human influence on her is the frightening effect of the animals. The pi-dogs described as 'hurtling' and of course the dreaded gamooses who are known for hating Europeans. She does succeed in communicating the gulf between the native Egyptians and the 'foreign' Europeans with great clarity.
The governess, Lucy, had an enormous influence on Penelope, as did her relationship with her own mother. It is very apparent that her father was a peripheral figure and that her mother lived a separate life from them all. The child is 'hived off with Lucy' to their quarters in the house whilst her mother was 'exhaustively seeing people'. Thankfully, she was not segregated by herself, but had Lucy to share her world. There are obvious problems with one person being a substitute for two parents, however there is no evident judgment of her parents. However I think her choices of incidents in the book about her parents displays her hurt that they did not want to care for her themselves.
Lively believes that her mother thought that the task of caring for her was 'unthinkable'. Of course she is very honest in stating that she did not mind not being with her mother and considered both parents as'satellite figures'. I think the author's choice of photographs for the novel informs the reader of her feelings towards her mother, f`ather and Lucy. There are only two pictures of her mother- one where she is on the beach with herself, Lucy and a friend, where Penelope has moved towards Lucy leaving her mother sitting alone in the middle. I think this suggests to the reader that there was a much more obvious bond and preference for Lucy than for the mother.
The other photo of her mother is where she is at the swimming pool with a male friend, both in swimsuits. Again I think this is deliberately chosen to portray her mother as a socialite with the suggestion of intimacy between the two people. The reader is told that her mother did not request custody of her daughter when she divorced and how this brutal hurt left her feeling 'discarded'. This is magnified by the fact that there are not any pictures of her parents together with their daughter.. The fact that it is Lucy who has the sole responsibility for educating the child again has a drastic effect on her interpersonal relationships. She is isolated from other children until she goes to boarding school, and it is a traumatic experience that she endures there. We see an image of an 'untrained puppy' that 'flailed about' as she was 'flung into that fetid jungle'.
Added to her confusion was the fact that reading was used as a punishment. Prior to boarding school she was an enthusiastic 'fervent' reader, but she was disabled by her lack of social skills when sent to school. I think that one of the potent comments of the book is here when Lively refers to learning and states'that the sun had now gone in'.
There are dramatic scenes in this book that I felt were an accurate and explicit portrayal of the author's childhood. The book works for me in the sense that I have been able to relate to particular aspects of the childhood perception described The sections of philosophical comment sometimes clarified a point, but occasionally I felt they were an interruption in the flow of dialogue. I think the fact that Lively moves constantly from one tense to another in her narrative and from one topic to another, resembles her fragmented childhood. For me these episodes are the most interesting part of the whole novel.
It can make the book appear clumsy when she digresses into historical topics about Egypt as sometimes I felt that this detracted from the childhood theme, which was absorbing enough for me to want to read more of it. I do see, though, that the historical background is important in that it provides a fuller picture of her childhood and enables the reader to appreciate the problems related to growing lip in a foreign country amongst a deluge of cultural differences. The added fact that her Egyptian life also included a war whic was of great significance cannot be ignored.
On the whole I think that the book is a very absorbing and often poignant account of a life lived in a strange and often mystifying place. If there is a fault with the book, I think it is that Penelope Lively has tried too hard to cover the philosophical ideas of how people remember their past. The idea of the palimpsest is interesting, and I can see that she has tried to create a kind of palimpsest for the reader. We are meant to see the child behind the adult, but sometimes the adult's voice is just a little bit too self important.
On two of the three main issues, I think the author has succeeded very well, that is the aspects of her childhood and the history of Egypt in the thirties, but I feel that the philosophy does not really sit well with the other two and makes the book less enjoyable than it could have been if she had written a simple autobiography.