I thought sure I'd enjoy another Penelope Lively book, but this one didn't do much for me. I loved Moon Tiger and City of the Mind, but not this one. The characters have some appeal -- Howard Beamish is a paleontologist who studies fossils of life that didn't make the cut of evolution. The story of Lucy Faulkner is that at nine years old she was the sensible, driven one in a family with a single mother who is sweet, but an air-head. The randomness of their situations is pointed out at every turn. Howard is a paleontologist because his father, concerned about family economics, took the family on the less expensive beach vacation where Howard discovered his interest. Howard gets the university job because one of the committee members who would have opposed his appointment had an accident on the way to work that day. Lucy lists Luton as her birthplace because that's where her feckless father deposited his pregnant wife while he escaped. Mother and baby left soon after and Lucy has no connection to Luton. Lucy gets a job in a way not unlike Howard's university appointment.
They meet because they each (randomly!) chose a particular flight to Nairobi and when the flight has an emergency landing in the fictitious country of Callimbia, trouble ensues. Along with the unfolding of the stories of Howard and Lucy, we have heard the history of Callimbia, which includes a stay there by Cleopatra's sister, Berenice. This history seems almost an indulgence of fancy, doing little to advance the plot.
The British citizens on the flight are held for ransom, and through much of their time there, it appears they will die. The fact that they were not executed seems, well, random.