Penelope Lively’s CITY OF THE MIND centers on London architect Matthew Halland, a recently divorced father with visiting privileges to his eight-year-old daughter, Jane. During the course of the narrative, Matthew takes Jane on outings, reflects on his failed marriage, contemplates a brighter future with his new friend, Sarah Bridges, and has several intriguing encounters with an amoral character named Rutter.
The narrative, however, is not confined to a single time; rather, it consistently shifts to other times and events: “For this is the city, in which everything is simultaneous. There is no yesterday, nor tomorrow, merely weather, and decay, and construction.” The author uses Matthew’s perspective as an architect to evoke London’s past and present: its Gothic cathedrals, Greek temples, Victorian stucco, Georgian brick, and twentieth century concrete. Lively also shifts perspective intermittently to show glimpses of other people of previous eras—for example, a nineteenth century paleontologist, an Elizabethan seaman, and a London air raid warden during World War II.
In this novel, Lively has attempted a difficult task. Although at times confusing, the narrative succeeds in evoking multiple temporal layers of the city of London, where modern structures rise from the decaying remains of past civilizations, and where Matthew will build a new relationship upon the ruins of a failed marriage.