Margaret Drabble is the dean of English fiction writers, with some 17 novels and two biographies on record, not to mention having served as editor of two editions of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Her latest book is an eccentric foray into personal and public history, an examination of the rich and intricate interchange between cultural artifacts and the people from whom they spring: children’s games, old houses, family relationships, Italian ceilings, art, aging, the “half-arts” (crafts) and the relatives with whom she shared them. (Or not.)

The Pattern in the Carpet, which the author insists is not a memoir, combines the appeal of one’s childish occupations—and the personal memories that surround them—with an adult’s curiosity about their origins. Having recently renounced writing fiction, Drabble here draws instead on many disparate facets of her life. She does it sometimes briskly, sometimes enigmatically, always inventively.

Jigsaw puzzles, one “way of getting quietly through life until death,” are Drabble’s first love, and a perfect allegory for the baffling parts of life that never quite seem to fit together until their time comes. Surprisingly, they were invented as early as the 1700s. Jigsaws went through several historical changes, from “dissected maps” at the start to super-sophisticated Jackson Pollocks in the 1960s.

Those are just a few tidbits of the history Drabble recounts here, but the personal touch is never far behind. Auntie Phyl, her trusty jigsaw puzzle partner, and other family members (including her estranged sister and fellow novelist A.S. Byatt) make appearances, adding a human element.

Despite the author’s disclaimers, this quirky book shares many qualities with the memoir. Without the memories of the people in her life who used them, a hopscotch history of the incredible world of human time-killers that existed before TV and the Internet might have been arid and lifeless. But read it fast; many of these games and occupations may be gone before you next look up from the page.

Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.

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