Penelope Lively’s delightful new collection of short stories, published earlier this year, is called The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories. This prompted me to look up the purple swamp hen online, and I found a few lovely pictures. The purple swamp hen appears to be one of those iridescent kind of birds whose feathers look mostly gray but shine purple and blue when the light hits them just right. And coincidentally, “iridescent” is definitely a word I would use to describe Penelope Lively’s writing. Her prose and her characters positively glow on the page.
The title story, The Purple Swamp Hen, is set in a garden in ancient Pompeii, and is told from the swamp hen’s point of view. The bird gives a detached, ironic description of the family who lives in the villa and keeps swamp hens as decorative garden fowl. They don’t have many attractive traits, this wealthy and decadent family. And because the story is set in Pompeii, you know what’s coming, right? Well, so do all the swamp hens, who take flight in order to survive. This story is the perfect beginning to a collection of stories describing the weaknesses and sometimes the beauties of human nature.
All the other stories are about people. People in relationships and wondering who they are and who they have become related to the other person. People looking back at friendships and old loves, sometimes with detachment and sometimes with yearning. Some of the stories have subtle supernatural elements to them; behind-the-scenes hauntings, unexpected resonances between characters from different places and centuries, that kind of thing. Some of the stories detail how what is said, what is left unsaid, what is seen, what is merely guessed at: how all these things make up a person’s inner world. But the big question is always what it means to be a person and to connect with others.
I adore Penelope Lively’s writing. It’s intelligent; it’s interesting; it’s engaging. I really enjoyed this short story collection.
Other new short story collections include:
Turf: Stories by Elizabeth Crane
Cockfosters: Stories by Helen Simpson
Disasters in the First World: Stories by Olivia Clare