Dame Penelope Lively has had a storied literary career. Short-listed for the Booker a couple of times and a recipient once, she is the recipient of many other literary awards. She has written two memoirs with a third that focuses on gardens due out this month. Apart from novels and children’s books she has five short story collections of which “The Purple Swamp Hen” is the most recent. Distinctly traditional post-World War II British in tone, each story is narrated with limited dialogue. Well written, but due to narration, most of the stories have the emotional detachment of an observer. Relationships, particularly marital fidelity or lack thereof, are the subject of a number of the stories.
Her constructs are imaginative. The title story is told from the perspective of a purple swamp hen in Pompei. “Biography” is a series of interviews about Lavinia Talbot, a recently deceased professor (and BBC personality) of some renown for her work on children, though childless herself. “Point of View”, captures what each story is about: perspective. The cat has the last point of view.
There are some mild horror stories and mysteries. “The Third Wife” turns the table on a criminally opportunistic husband. “Lorna and Tom” is about a marriage where class difference is a bridge to far. “The Bridge” for me is the best story. The death of a child is the marital chasm that enables physical and emotional separation. The perspectives on the cause is charged.
These stories reflect capable composition directed toward the POV theme. Prose and character development are secondary to this purpose. The stories are stereotypically white, middle class Britain that reflect the author’s time period. The writing is honest, with a hint of polite British criticism, all within the narrow confine of perspective.
Worth reading especially for those who aspire to write short stories.