Saturday, June 24, 2017

"The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories," by Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively’s writing is like an old friend to me, so much so that I almost feel that Lively herself is an old friend. Of course she is not, but I wish she were. She is wise, she is astute, she is funny, she is worldly, she is observant, and she is kind but aware of human failings. I have written frequently about her fiction here, as well as about a memoiristic book. (A quick check through the search box in the top lefthand corner of this blog will give details for those interested.) Lively is 84, has won the Booker Prize and many other awards, and was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She does not seem to have slowed down in writing; I have just read her latest book, “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories” (Viking, 2016). I was a bit put off by the first story, which is also the title story, because it is historical (not that I am always against historical fiction, but sometimes I am…perhaps a topic for a future blogpost…) and, especially, because it is whimsical. Lively does occasionally dabble in such stories. I am not saying it is a bad story, just that I am not drawn to such stories. But after that first story, I was back with the Penelope Lively that impresses me every time. I have written about her fiction (and memoir) several times, as I mentioned, and don’t have new ways to say how well she writes, how understanding she is of human nature, and how compelling her stories are, generally in a quiet rather than flashy way, but no less compelling for that. There seem to be two main themes in this collection: the mysteries of marriage (and marriage-like relationships) and the complexities of aging. In particular, regarding marriage, Lively explores marriages, or phases of marriages, that are not, or no longer are, at the romantic stages. Characters, especially wives, start to wonder why they married this particular person, and why they feel they don’t really know him (or her) at all, and whether they should or will stay together. There are so many unknown areas, so many misunderstandings. Or sometimes they feel they have become too familiar to (and sometimes bored with) each other. But then, often, there are reminders and there is understanding that there are factors that keep them together: history together, children, small gestures of caring, and more. These stories show the insides of, the nitty-gritty parts of, marriages and relationships, the good, the bad, and – most often – the complex in-between aspects of marriage. As for aging, Lively often (although not only) writes about characters who are in their sixties or seventies or older. They think about their lives, partly assessing where they have been and where they are, partly surprised to think of themselves as old. Sometimes the two themes -- marriages and aging -- meld. These wise, insightful, clear-eyed, compassionate stories are made of the stuff of real life, and I value and enjoy them more than I can say.
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