The past and the operation of memory are recurring themes in Penelope Lively’s work, and her latest book also finds her looking back, this time at her own past. She is, however, more interested in what did not happen to her than what did, and in Making It Up she imagines a number of unrealised lives for herself. In recent years we’ve become familiar with the counterfactual approach to history where historians take the existing evidence and elaborate plausible alternative historical scenarios to the ones we know so well – Germany winning rather than losing the Second World War, and so on. Like these historians, Lively is a great believer in the roles of free will and contingency in affecting outcomes and she applies the ‘what if’ method to her own personal history with fascinating results, effectively creating what she calls an ‘anti-memoir’. She takes the facts of her life and turns them into fiction by imagining what might have been if she had made different choices at certain critical junctures. Imagining the passages we didn’t take or the door we never opened is something we do naturally enough in daily life and, as we reach middle age and beyond, such imaginings are usually heavily tinged with regret for all the more rewarding or exciting lives we might have led, if only. While a sense of loss is pervasive, Lively has had a perfectly happy life, and she carries out this exercise in making up the destinies that were never to be hers – because of choice or chance – with all the detached curiosity of the historian.
The narrative is episodically structured and each section is based on a turning point in Lively’s life. In the first instance there is the life that might never have been if she, her mother and her nanny, fleeing Egypt to escape the German assault on Cairo, had set sail for