Oleander, Jacaranda


A few years ago, I was browsing on Brotherhood Books when I saw Penelope Lively's childhood memoir, Oleander, Jacaranda come up on the Recent Additions page. But by the time I'd clicked on it, it had already disappeared into someone else's cart. Ever since, I'd regarded Oleander, Jacaranda as The One That Got Away...

So you can imagine the glee (and speed) with which I pounced on this copy when it showed up. Written in 1994, this slim volume collects Lively's memories of growing up in the 1930s and 40s in colonial Egypt (though it was, strictly speaking, a Protectorate, hence appearing in the atlas with ambiguous pink stripes rather than the solid pink that denoted a full imperial possession). But this is an unusually reflective memoir, braiding together Lively's vivid but partial memories of the time with her later ruminations on what was probably actually happening -- for example, the episode when she ran into General de Gaulle in an embassy bathroom during a time when history insists that he wasn't there. She also includes musings on the nature of memory itself, stages of childhood development, the way particular memories have come to carry more symbolic weight than others, and an account of a much later visit to Egypt, in the 1980s, and the remains she discovered there.

I have some fellow feeling for Lively, as someone who also spent those formative childhood years in a very different country, unsure of her identity between two cultures, and in the sticky position of belonging to the colonial power, but as a child, in a helpless and dependent way. More of this later, as Oleander, Jacaranda sent me scurrying to dig out a book I've been hoarding for quite a while...

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