Picks and Pans Review: Oleander, Jacaranda
by Penelope Lively
Lively has written a pungent, penetrating memoir of growing up in Cairo during the last febrile days of 2,000 years of Greek, Roman and finally French and British occupation. The author, whose novel Moon Tiger won Britain's Booker Prize in 1987, lived from the early 1930s until the end of World War II in a British enclave on the outskirts of Cairo. She describes a magical, cavernous house and gardens with fragrant mimosas and poisonous snakes that were flushed out by visiting snake charmers. The child of a workaholic bank officer and an emotionally remote mother, Lively was raised by a nanny named Lucy, who instilled in Lively the idea that "I was English...deep in my being.... You were never allowed to forget that." Being British meant maintaining ridiculous codes of social etiquette, which only made Lively hunger even more for the foreignness of the Arab world.
Her memoir is like a hothouse environment full of Proustian nostalgia that, at its best, evinces a strong sense of inveterate British superiority and tea-party culture thriving in the dusty Third World. Lively indulges in overly analytical passages about children's perception and memory, but she redeems herself with lighthearted accounts of Egyptian history and insights into traveling and living abroad. (HarperCollins, $20)