In "Making It Up," Penelope Lively brings to press her "anti-memoir." Most of these engaging third-person fictional stories could stand...

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“Making It Up”
by Penelope Lively
Viking, 215 pp., $24.95

In “Making It Up,” Penelope Lively brings to press her “anti-memoir.” Most of these engaging third-person fictional stories could stand alone, but she sandwiches them between commentaries about how she has taken junctures in her own life and created “confabulations.” What if she had gotten pregnant at 18? Or married an American? Intriguingly, the 72-year-old author recalls her younger self as the “ancestor” of who she is today.

Lively is a well-tuned storyteller who has not only lived in interesting times but noticed them as well. Her personal writing has tended to deflect the spotlight from herself, in order to examine the historical and social forces that shape the lives of individuals. The author of dozens of books for children, and nonfiction as well as novels, she won the 1987 Booker Prize for “Moon Tiger.”

In “Comet,” the main character is Sarah, a middle-age English woman. She receives word from Italian authorities that the body of her much older half-sister, Penelope, who died at 22 in a plane crash before Sarah was born, has been found. At the awkward funeral, she meets an old man who was once secretly engaged to Penelope, and her subsequent correspondence with him opens up for Sarah surprising connections to unknown lives.

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In “The Battle of the Imjin River,” Lively supposes what might have happened to her husband-to-be as a young man in the British military. Five years before she met him, Jack Lively was completing his mandatory national service. Just weeks before his unit was slated to go to Korea in 1950, he was admitted to university. He went to Cambridge; his unit went to Korea and most of the men were killed in a battle with the Chinese.

With relevance to British and American military action in Iraq, Lively develops the character of a young man who doesn’t want to be in a foreign land fighting a war that has no meaning to him. “YOU ARE GOING TO KOREA TO HELP THE SOUTH KOREANS REPEL AGGRESSION” he reads in his War Office pamphlet. “Ah. So that was what they were there for. For noble, enlightened reasons. Nevermind that the goalposts had now been subtly shifted and it was the Chinese they must fight … ” Meaning is to be found in his community and dreams of the future, if there is an “after” to serving in the British military.

Another story takes up the Cold War anxieties of a young woman on an archaeological dig in 1973. The layers of history she can see in the earth should give her “the long view,” but she resents “waiting for the bomb to drop” at “the end of the world.”

Occasionally the commentary is repetitive, and several stories are underdeveloped, but this quibble with a writer of Lively’s virtuoso skill is minor. Her stories are powerfully suggestive of just how much consequence follows small turns of fate.