I've mentioned before my great enthusiasm for Penelope Lively's books. In the last few years I've read each new book of hers at publication (and there is another one to look forward to in November). At the same time I've been looking for her previous books. Somehow I missed Cleopatra's Sister, which was published in 1993, just after my favorite City of the Mind.
This book is very different from the last Lively I read, The Road to Lichfield, which I posted about back in June. It seems very different from any other Lively that I have read. I knew the basic plot elements going in: a British passenger plane en route to Nairobi is forced to make an emergency landing in the African nation of Callimbia. A military coup has just taken place, and some of the passengers are held as political hostages. The story focuses on two of them, Howard and Lucy, strangers up to that point, who fall in love in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty.
The first part of the book traces the history of Howard, Lucy, and Callimbia itself in alternating sections leading up to the fateful flight. Callimbia, a fictional country, lies on the north coast of Africa, west of Egypt and Libya. Lively creates a credible and fascinating history for this country, starting like James Michener sometimes does with the dawn of time and the shifting of the tectonic plates. The sister of the title, Berenice, was supposedly executed by their father Ptolemy (not to be confused of course with her two brothers named Ptolemy) in one of their many family quarrels, but according to an alternative account, she was rescued by a love-struck guard captain and fled with him to Callimbia.
All three of these stories, of Howard, Lucy, and Callimbia, are presented as examples of one of Lively's frequent themes:
"[the] uneasy balance between the operation of contingency and decision, with the subject tottering precariously between the two from the cradle to the grave. Which is the stuff of history itself, a conjunction so capricious that it hardly bears contemplation by those unfortunate enough to get mixed up in the process."Howard becomes a paleontologist because when he is six years old, his parents can't afford a vacation abroad. On a beach in Somerset, he discovers an ammonite, and from his fascination with it his career is born. Lucy, a journalist, gets an important job because she falls getting off a bus, pops into the nearest Boots to buy new tights, and meets an acquaintance who knows of an opening. Howard is on the flight because he learns of a new collection of fossils at a museum in Nairobi, Lucy because she accepted an assignment to write a travel piece. Both elements, contingency and decision, are there, and woven throughout this book.
The second part of the book is a straightforward account of the flight, the forced landing, and all that ensues with the group held hostage. They have no idea what is going on, and neither do we, and the tension rises steadily. I said in my post on The Road to Lichfield that Lively's books are not action-driven, and here she proves me wrong. I admit that I grew so concerned over the hostages' fate that I finally gave in and read the last two pages. Lively brings the story to a neat and satisfying conclusion, though as with The Road to Lichfield, I was left wanting to know more, to know what happens next, not least to Callimbia itself. In these days, this story of a fictional north African country, under a military coup, perhaps resonates differently than it did in 1993.