The butterfly effect flaps its wings for Lively

The butterfly effect is a metaphor used in the study of chaos theory to explain how a small action in a remote part of a system can have large effects far from the source. That’s the phenomena that Penelope Lively examines to great delight in How It All Began.

An elderly woman is mugged. She falls, breaks her hip, is forced to move in with her daughter and son-in-law while she recovers. And that particular flap of the butterfly’s wings leads into consequences in a multitude of lives, near and far.

Lively has taken a common premise — the effect of chance in all of our lives — and deftly turned out a uniquely charming and thoughtful novel. Charlotte is that elderly crime victim, a widowed retired schoolteacher. Rose is her dutiful and loving daughter, who brings her mother into her home completely unaware of the emotional havoc that will be wrought. Charlotte herself remains oblivious to much of the havoc that will result, even in the lives of people neither Rose nor Charlotte have ever met. Marriages are destroyed and saved, romances go sour and blossom, careers are ended and begun, and all because a juvenile delinquent decided to assault a total stranger.

Lively’s writing lives up to her name. On the surface it is lighthearted, breezy, casual, but I found myself stopping again and again to mark passages that managed to capture truths that felt universal:

Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

Charlotte, left alone for great swaths of the day, has plenty of time to think about her current circumstances:

You are on the edge of things now, clinging on to life’s outer rim. You have this comet trail of your own lived life, sparks from which arrive in the head all the time, whether you want them or not — life has been lived but it is all still going on, in the mind, for better and for worse. But don’t imagine that anyone else wants to know about it; this narrative is personal, and mind you remember that.

Her injury brings her face-to-face with the reality of having lived seventy-seven years:

You slide, in old age, into a state of perpetual diffidence, of unspoken apology. You walk more slowly than normal people, you are obliged to say “what?” too often, others have to give up their seat on the bus to you, on train journeys you must ask for help with your absurdly small and light case. There is a void somewhere in your head into which tip the most familiar names. … When you were young yourself you were appropriately nice to old people, gave up your seat and so forth, but you never really thought about them. They were another species, their experience was unimaginable, and in any case it was irrelevant; you were not going there, or at least not for so long that there was no need to consider it.

And, of course, the ever-present reminder of her physical state:

Pain is in residence. Charlotte is a pain expert, or maybe connoisseur is a better term. She can rate pain on a scale of one to ten, as required in hospital, even slipping in a half on occasion. “Six and a half this morning,” and the nurse’s pen falters — the charts do not allow for this. But when you have lived for years with pain you are nicely tuned to that extra notch up or down. More than that, she is familiar with the way in which pain chases around the body, popping up where it should not be. Referred pain, this is called, a sly escape from the root site of the problem. Indeed — but Charlotte sees it also as pain’s malign capacity to mutate, to advance and retreat, to behave like some bodily parasite with its own agenda, gnawing away when it feels like it, going into deceptive hibernation only to spring back grinning just when you thought the going was good. … So pain has seized the opportunity, has danced into her spine — and into the backside and down the legs — and has shoved the hip aside for the moment. Tomorrow all may be otherwise; hip may snarl, back may be in remission — pain’s agenda is unpredictable, perverse, defiant.

And always, Lively celebrates the joy of reading, of books, of learning a second language:

Language blazed at him—all day, every day. It challenged him from the sides of buses, in the Tube, from newspapers. On the radio, the television, in the street. He looked and listened, trying to follow. He snatched what he could — Ah! that I understand, this I can get. Swathes of it escaped him, chattering away into oblivion. And parallel to this perverse, obstructive language ran the words in his own head, the easy, fluent eloquence of his own tongue. When in a foreign country, he thought, you are behind a fence, or in a cell — everything is going on around you but you are not quite part of it. You open your mouth and sound like a child; you know that you are someone else, but you cannot explain it.

Balancing a light tone with some heavy philosophical musings isn’t easy, but Lively manages to walk the tightrope without a wobble. I read this book as part of the British Author Challenge on LibraryThing, where Lively was one of two authors featured in January. How It All Began was a splendid introduction to the work of this venerable British writer.

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