The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories, Penelope Lively 2016
I loved this book and was sad when I closed the cover on the final story. Lively, whose earlier book, The Moon Tiger (not just a Booker Prize winner but the selection for the best Booker of the 1980’s!) has been a consistently favorite recommendation of mine when asked for a novel to read, remains a vital and active writer at the age of 87 living in London. In this collection of 15 stories she demonstrates her reliable gift for storytelling along with impressive range and creativity in form. The eponymous story that opens the book tells the tale of Pompeii’s extinction through the eyes of a bird living in the garden of an aristocrat. Three stories are classic literary ghost stories in the style of Poe and James, and they worked for me though I’m not a fan of the genre. There’s even a riff on Pride and Prejudice which she successfully pulls of in a wonderful story entitled Mrs. Bennet. The real substance in most of the stories in the book, however, is her exploration into relationships, primarily romance, love, and communication between a man and a woman. The stories are written in different forms that provide her with the opportunity for multiple viewpoints: one takes the form of a biographer’s interviews; one story alternates inner thoughts and external conversations between two women, one of whom ‘stole’ the husband of the other 42 years earlier; another puts us in the head of a screenwriter struggling with POV (point of view) and then drops us into the alternate POV’s of her and her husband. One theme in all of these stories is that it’s impossible to really know another soul, and it may well be impossible to really know yourself. In ‘The Bridge’ a tragic tale of the aftermath of the death of a child in the distant past, one of the characters having decided not to phone his estranged daughter observes, “No pack it in, Barry. Fold up this particularly insignificant day and pack it away.” The same character, a screenwriter and director, later has an idea for a show while watching his wife and observes, “Trivial, but oddly clear.” It is this focus on the everydayness of life and how our lives with each other are comprised of these ‘trivial’ moments that need to be collected and curated into our life stories, who we are and what we’ve done, that makes Lively such a vital writer. Short stories are not for everyone, but I like the gem-like quality of a well-formed story which, when well done, contains a universe in a few pages. Lively is a master at this. Read them.