Likely Stories: The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories by Penelope Lively

Apr 19, 2018

Interesting selection of stories by a Booker Prize winning author.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

Penelope Lively is an author with a subtle and delightful sense of humor and pathos.  She has written more than 20 novels and short story collections.  Her latest collection, The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories is every bit engrossing as many of the others I have read.  Penelope was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1933.  She is a British Citizen and has been awarded the title of “Dame of the British Empire.”  She won the Booker Prize in 1987 for her acclaimed novel, Moon Tiger.   She is a sure bet for a great read.

The collection begins with the title story, The Purple Swamp Hen.  The story is told by a Purple Swamp Hen, and it is rather humorous.  Penelope begins with a detailed description—including taxonomy—of the hen.  She writes, “Wondering where all this is going?  Have patience.  You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii—somewhat faded, a travesty of my remarkable plumage, but nevertheless a passable portrait.  You all exclaim over those frescos: the blues and greens, the precise depiction of flora and fauna.  Oh, look!  You cry—there are roses, and ferns, oleanders, poppies, violets.  And oh! There’s a pigeon, a jay, a swallow, a magpie.  You don’t cry—oh! A Purple Swamp Hen, because the vast majority of you can’t recognize one.  You eye me with vague interest and pass on.  It’s just like a garden today! You cry” (1).  I googled this peculiar bird and found it quite beautiful.  I crowned this story as my favorite—until the next couple of stories.

Another favorite soon appeared.  “A Biography” begins with a brief obituary of Lavinia Talbot.  In an effort to document the woman’s life, someone began questioning her friends and relatives.  Alice Hobbs is the first interviewee.  Alice mentions her as an acquaintance.  When the interview is over, Alice reflects on the information she left out of the interview.  Penelope writes, “Yes, actually I’d rather go back to our childhood.  After all, that’s when I knew her best.  I remember the latter part most, when I was—oh, nine, ten—and she was a teenager.  Except there weren’t teenagers then, they hadn’t been invented—people that age were just in a sort of limbo, waiting to be grown up.  But Lavinia somehow refused that, she was very much established, very much already a person, helping Mum out at family gatherings—our mother was lovely, of course, but she wasn’t an organizer, things could fall apart, and Lavinia would step in and see the table got laid and the food got served, all that.  And she wasn’t shy, like I was, she could find something to say to grownups, carry on a conversation.  Goodness, I remember her with Uncle Harry, our cousin Barbara’s father, holding her own like anything in an argument about—oh, something political, I think.  And he got all ruffled—she was getting the better of him maybe—and told her she was still wet behind the ears.  She made that into a great joke, after—always saying, ‘I must be careful to dry my ears if Uncle Harry’s going to be here’” (57).  As you will see while reading, she was a great fan of hyphenated sentences.  She has six in this paragraph. 

Penelope Lively has a wonderful sense of dry English humor.  The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories might take a bit of reading to adapt to her style, but it is more than worth the effort.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!