‘Books are essentially a social medium’ we are told in the short story Mrs Bennet by Penelope Lively. If that is true (and I believe it is), then short stories are surely the most gregarious form of literature.
I think nearly every keen reader has fond and formative memories of Penelope Lively. ‘The Ghost of Thomas Kempe’ was one of my favourites at school, a spectacularly spooky story about a poltergeist, and I still haven’t forgotten the impact the book had on me.
So I couldn’t wait to get ‘The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories’ – the latest collection of short stories by Penelope Lively firmly in my grip.
It is a masterful collection. I was enthralled by the innate sentimentality of each story. Family, friends, complicated relationships, home life, work-life… unexciting themes, you might think for fiction. But in Lively’s hands, they become something more and each appearance takes on a new dimension. And of course, something always so crucial and wonderful in a short story, we should be prepared for an ending with a twist that completely takes your breath away.
In The Weekend, we are with a family going to visit an old university friend at their holiday house in the Cotswolds. As the two pals slowly realise they don’t have that much in common any more, we experience the slightly awkward (but very familiar) tension between the families: we observe their different routines and how they attempt to live around one another, and our attention is fully occupied. But, Lively is playful in the peripheries. We should be watchful at the sidelines. The last sentence, reminiscent of a Maupassant, will make you gasp.
In A Biography we read a series of interviews with the family members, colleagues and friends of a late academic. Each offer their own perspective of the vivacious Lavinia Talbot, whose character colours in every entry.
‘The Purple Swamp Hen’ is a truly heartwarming collection of stories. Each piece plays off one another in a sociable manner, so it is particularly pleasing if you have time to read more than one in one sitting.
You absolutely have to read it!
‘The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories’ was published by Penguin Books, £8.99 paperback, on 4th May 2017.
My copy of ‘The Purple Swamp Hen’ was kindly sent to me (on my request) by the publisher to review.