The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories. Penelope Lively.

Lively, Penelope. The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories. Penguin Random Host, New York. 2016. F;6/17.

This English author is quite the grande dame (literally; she carries the prefix Dame) of English lit, having published dozens of books and stories, long a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and Commander of the Order of the British Empire, etc. etc. She’s still going strong at 84. It wasn’t until about the fifth or sixth story of this collection that I started to wonder if she was a bit preoccupied. There was a big difference between the title story and most of the rest of them.

Purple Swamp Hen is just a dazzling little gem. The narrator is the hen, who escapes, possibly along with a young female slave, from Pompeii when Vesuvius erupts in the year 79 A.D. It’s from a donnish and erudite but necessarily humble point of view that she describes the viciousness, venality, greed, sexual abuse of slaves, lying, and general selfish arrogance of the family in whose backyard she lives, trying to stay out of physical trouble.

The climate of the Bay of Naples was warm (and going to get a lot warmer, but we’ll come to that), and they liked to be out of doors is much as possible. Eat out, sleep out, wash the dishes, pluck a pigeon, gossip, quarrel, wallop an old sleeve, fuck that pretty new one, plot, scheme, bribe, threaten.

The father, a grasping wine merchant, and his son “theoretically employed in the family winery but spend(ing) most of his time hanging out downtown with his friends” both regularly have their way with the 14-year-old slave girl Servilia. At one point a gang of children get their hands around our narrator’s neck (“Pull its feathers off!” “Kill it!”) and Servilia rescues our narrator. They have a quick conspiratorial conversation: “No language passed, but perfect understanding. Something I had not come across before with that species” says the hen.

A couple of days following a huge bacchanalia at which the Lord of the Manor catches his wife with her lover, there develops what at first seems to be an earthquake, but which the purple swamp hen senses is something a lot more profound. Able to fly, she and her mate get up in the air and escape, and her relationships with Servilia and the whole dreadful family and city conclude appropriately.

The other stories held my interest but weren’t on the same level. They featured realistic but consistently doomed romantic relationships that mostly seemed to start out just fine but gradually cracked and fell apart. The writing continued to be flawless and engaging, but there wasn’t quite the same sparkling enthusiasm.

It’s kind of comforting that this enormously entitled grandmotherly writer who you might suspect couldn’t avoid being a haughty old bitch delivers this wonderfully humble but clever hen. It’s an ironically vaguely autobiographical old bird who, after years of flapping around in the chaos of unforgivably bad human behaviour (forever roasted and immortalized in volcanic stone) soars into the sky and leaves it all behind. Penelope Lively was obviously on a very satisfying roll at her computer when she turned this one out. 9.2/9.4 the first story, 7.9/8.5 for the rest.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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