The autobiographical OLEANDER, JACARANDA: A CHILDHOOD PERCEIVED, which describes Penelope Lively’s childhood in Egypt in the 1930’s and the 1940’s, deals with the same subject as her novels. In MOON TIGER, winner of the 1987 Booker Prize, and in her other fiction, the author defines life as a continuing interaction between the perceiver and the object of perception. Similarly, as Lively says in her preface, this memoir is primarily an exploration of how children look at their world.
Young Penelope finds the adult world puzzling. As an English child, bound by English conventions but living in Egypt, she does not feel a part of the vibrant life all around the little colonial enclave where she lives. Moreover, she feels separated from her family, since she is being reared not by her parents, whom she seldom sees, but by a hired British nanny named Lucy. When Penelope goes exploring the countryside, she innocently envies the freedom of the barefoot Egyptian children, not realizing what their poverty really means. Shielded by Lucy, she experiences World War II merely as an event which brings interesting visitors to her house. Then, when Penelope is twelve, her childhood comes to an abrupt end. Her parents are divorced, and she is bundled off to a British boarding school, thus losing at once both the home she has always known and the surrogate mother who is the stabilizing force in her life. OLEANDER, JACARANDA is a touching account of one little girl’s happiness and heartbreak, but it is also a universal story about the loss of childhood, innocence, and love.