The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories Penelope Lively (2016)
“The Purple Swamp Hen” is the title story in Penelope Lively’s recent collection. It’s a tale set in ancient Pompeii just before the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried the city in lava, and it’s told from the viewpoint of, wait for it, a purple swamp hen. An excavated Pompeiian fresco depicts this decorative bird that was kept in walled Roman gardens. Lively’s use of the swamp hen as her narrator is clever when you consider that this creature is in an ideal position to observe human shenanigans taking place in the garden, as Lively enumerates: “fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm.”
The ancient Mediterranean setting of “The Purple Swamp Hen,” is, however, an outlier in this masterful collection of stories from the octogenarian British author. The remaining stories are mostly set in Britain, in various decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Relationships are the overarching theme, and Lively presents couples in multiple circumstances, including falling in love, making a commitment, deciding on children, surviving divorce, taking revenge, and, of course, dying. For instance, she talks us through the emotions of an argument between a young husband and wife and takes us to Spain with a pair of penurious artists. Once in a while she tosses in the possibility of a ghost, to mix things up and bring the past into the present. Each new story opens up a miniature world for the reader.
The short story form is highly confining for the writer. Characterizations have to be conveyed in a few sentences, and the plot has to be tight and of the proper scope for the length of the piece. With Lively’s stories, I always feel as if I know the characters, despite the brevity of the pieces (one is only 6 pages long). In their narrative rigor, Lively’s short stories remind me of the stories of Alice Munro, though Munro’s tend to be darker and sadder, to my reading.
Memory and the way the past and the future interact are persistent themes in Penelope Lively’s body of writing, which is large. She’s produced three memoirs that I find somewhat rambling, but her fiction is first-rate. Parallel to her career as an author of adult fiction is her work as an author of award-winning children’s books, starting back in the 1970s. In 1987 she won the Booker Prize for her adult novel Moon Tiger, in which a woman on her deathbed recalls scenes from her life. I recommend that one, but I’ve particularly enjoyed several of her more recent offerings, including The Photograph (2003), Consequences (2007), Family Album (2009), and How It All Began (2011). In this last title, Lively explores how one event affects seven different characters.
If you haven’t discovered Penelope Lively, don’t delay.