Sunday, July 09, 2017

The Purple Swamp Hen

The Purple Swamp Hen & other stories / Penelope Lively
New York: Viking, c2016.
197 p.

I've read all of Penelope Lively's novels and most of her short stories, at least all the ones I've been able to get my hands on. And almost all of her children's novels too. I really like her writing.

So I was pleased to see this new collection of 15 stories, and was looking forward to reading it as soon as I could. Thankfully, I really enjoyed it.

These stories are both a bit lighter and a bit more edgy than some of her other writing. The title story in particular surprised me with some of the slightly risque content - not what I'd expect to see in her work. But it was a great read; set in Pompeii, told from the viewpoint of a purple swamp hen who was kept as a decorative fowl for the garden, somewhat like peacocks now. (by the way, have you ever seen a purple swamp hen? I'd never even heard of one - they are quite astonishing). It is clever, with a modern feel, even while clearly sharing Lively's preoccupation with the past and with the "what ifs" that I've seen in some of her other short stories. The narrator is unforgettable, that's for sure.

The other stories are contemporary, and deal with families, relationships, misunderstandings, history, the presence of the past in the present: all of Lively's usual preoccupations. And the reason I love her writing so much. Because these are short stories there isn't as much room for her lyrical explorations of thought to spool out, so the storylines are necessarily more compact. Her style really shines in a novel, but in these stories she allows herself a punch line, so to speak, and the stories often have a reversal at the conclusion. There's a bit more "liveliness" (am I allowed to say this?) in some of the stories because of their brief nature.

The closing story, "The Third Wife" is equally as snappy and satisfying as the first, as an odious man gets his comeuppance. Though you can sort of see it coming, the tale is still entertaining and pleasing. There are other quieter stories about marriages and friendships, and even a couple of ghost stories -- one about a girl in a garden was my preferred ghostly tale, even if it was obvious as to plot -- nobody does atmosphere like Lively does.

A great addition to her list, I was pleased to read it even if it does mean I'm running out of new Lively material! A few more of her backlist story collections and I'll be caught up.

Read this alongside another of her collections (and my favourite), Making It Up, and you will get a strong sense of her style and her writerly themes.


  1. This sounds so wonderful, Melwyk! I'm interested in reading Lively's writing. And the cover is lovely.

    1. It is wonderful - if you've never read Lively before you have a lot to look forward to :) I know you like war fiction, so you could try Consequences first, as a novel.

  2. I have read most if her novels but not many of her short stories. I did love these. In fact I have chosen it for one of my book groups.

    1. It would be great for a book discussion - I've just recommended "Making It Up" or "Family Album" to one of my groups too


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