is a 1987 novel by Dame Penelope Lively, winner of the Booker Prize. Using multiple points of view all stemming from the overarching narrator, Lively tells a life story that is also a history of the world as well as an exploration of how we know things, how knowledge is validated and passed down, and the role of our own consciousness in determining what is true and what is fiction, what is fact and what is opinion, and how our own thoughts and psychology shape the way we present history—and how that shaping actually changes
The story opens with a third-person paragraph; an unnamed person says, “I’m writing a history of the world.” A nurse responds with a few patronizing words before returning to her duties. The narrative switches to a first-person account from Claudia Hampton, who emphasizes that she is, in fact, going to create a history of the world, and in the process provide a personal history as well. Claudia offers her backstory in pieces throughout the novel: She is seventy-six years old, she is dying of cancer, she is a writer and historian.
Her story begins with her dim memories of her father, who died in World War I when she was very small, and then jumps to her memory of being ten years old and competing with her brother Gordon to see who could collect the most fossils on a beach. Claudia switches between directly addressing the reader and speaking about herself in the third-person, sowing some subtle confusion as to who, exactly, is narrating the third-person sections. These early childhood memories are likened to the Earth’s earliest historical eras. Claudia thinks of her daughter, Lisa, whom she describes as dull. This leads her to a memory of Lisa’s father, Jasper, and of the moment when she informed him that she was pregnant and intent on keeping the child. Claudia describes the private thoughts of Jasper as if she were privy to them, hinting at an element of the unreliable in her story.
She then has a lengthy reflection on the nature of historical figures, imagining the titans of history doing mundane, everyday tasks that get left out of the books.
The narrative jumps to a moment when Claudia was in a nursing home, unable to recall the word â€›curtain’ until a nurse reminds her. She reflects on the history of the English language, which leads her to consider her relationship with her daughter, Lisa, which leads to Lisa’s own perspective on her reserved mother. Claudia remembers a time when Lisa visited her in the nursing home, and she asked her daughter if she still attended church. Informed that she did, Claudia says she believes in God because it’s the only explanation for the confused state of the world.
Claudia contemplates Jasper’s father, Sasha, a man who beat incredible odds during the war to live into his old age. Claudia considers the many ways Sasha has influenced her life, and how all those changes were the ripples of something incredibly unlikely. She also thinks about her time as a war correspondent in Cairo during World War II. She describes Cairo as a place where time has no meaning, the ancient artifacts mixing with the modern day to blend everything together. This leads her to remember meeting Tom Southern in the desert outside Cairo. Tom is an English soldier on leave; they fall in love, but then Tom is called back to the front and killed. Claudia discovers she is pregnant by him and decides to keep the baby, but miscarries. Lisa visits her mother and thinks of her with disdain, believing her mother has never loved anyone.
Claudia thinks back to her relationship with Gordon as they grew into adolescence, revealing that their intimacy and competitiveness stretched into physical intimacies as they engaged in an incestuous relationship.
Claudia thinks about how her own body is a historical record of her life, how all her injuries and surgeries are recorded there. She remembers a trip to the zoo with Jasper and Lisa when the young girl asked about monkeys having sex; Claudia didn’t hesitate to explain sex to her.
Claudia thinks about the Cold War and how her status as a mother inspired greater fear and terror in her despite her inability to express normal maternal love. She thinks back to a moment just two days before Gordon died, a few years before. Although their relationship was never the same after the war, his death left a huge gap in her life.
Claudia receives a batch of papers at the nursing home, among them the diary of Tom Southern. She had received it six years earlier from Tom’s sister when his effects were recovered; she reads it again. His diary is an examination of fear and war; Claudia dominates his thoughts.
The narrative snaps back to the present, where Claudia is close to death having just finished her re-read of Tom’s diary. She reflects on how Tom’s death has frozen him in his youth, how he has been removed from history while she has moved forward through it. She thinks he would be disgusted by the person she has become.
Lively’s exploration of Claudia’s life jumps about in time and uses multiple points-of-view to convey a theory of history in which our own consciousness actively changes history. The sense of unreliableness echoes our own inability to truly know what happened in the past; like Claudia’s recollections, we must rely on third parties and will never really know the truth.