June 5, 2020: “The Purple Swamp Hen” by Penelope Lively

Friday’s here, Story366!

Today our family entered the real world again in one particular way: The Karen went on a writing retreat. While some New England commune, isolated for two weeks in a cabin sounds like a really great writing retreat, what we usually do for these is get a hotel somewhere close and just isolate ourselves, individually, for two or three days. In the past, we’ve been more exotic, going for longer—five days has been the longest for each of us—and going somewhere far away. Once I sent Karen to Miami Beach for a long weekend. Since we’ve had the boys, that’s not as doable, but still, we get some writing done, get to be inside our own headspace, and recharge our batteries.

Karen is at a hotel on the other side of town tonight, and tomorrow night, too, which is basically the first time we’ve done something like this since last year. We normally don’t get a chance to do these during the winter as we’re too busy, or saving for this and that (i.e., Christmas), but overall, since it’d been so long, we decided to take this plunge, to get a room. If you’ve been following this blog, you know that we haven’t broken quarantine yet, venturing into the world only a handful of times. Karen works her newspaper job, so she’s been in the community, but still social distancing, masking, etc. To stay in a strange room? Sleep there? Eat food out for two straight days? That’s a big step.

This also leaves me alone with the boys for two days, which I like just fine. I like them. Yesterday, I mentioned our fridge disaster, and I really just got done with that job—except all our food is still at my building, in the breakroom fridge, on the MSU campus. Tomorrow, we’ll pick that up—if no one’s stolen it—and that will be done.

Today, the mail brought me Penelope Lively‘s The Purple Swamp Hen, out in 2016 from Penguin. I’ve not read Lively before today, but have known her as the Booker Prize-winning author of twenty or so books, a major author across the pond. Maybe I’ve read a story in an anthology, in The New Yorker? In any case, I was happy to immediately start reading her today upon opening the package, always eager for a new author.

The opening and title story, “The Purple Swamp Hen,” delivers what it promises, as it’s told from the perspective of the titular fowl. The particular bird is a garden ornament in a lush family garden, an alternative to the peacock. The real fun here is that the family garden here is an ancient Roman garden, one made famous in a famous Pompei fresco, which I’m pretty sure is this:


Hey! An ekphrastic! Anyway, the bird’s owner is Quintus Pompeius, orchard magnate and wine dealer, and owner of quite a few slaves. Apparently, lots of kinky shenanigans goes on at this plantation, in this garden, and our purple swamp hen has seen it all.

I’ll note that the swamp hen has kind of a forlorn voice to it, but also authoritative, sort of like a romantic historian, looking back fondly on a crazy time she happened to witness firsthand. She’s telling the story from some future vantage point, even contemporary, which is interesting, kind of a winking, all-knowing perspective. The fact it’s a bird taking on this persona makes it even more intriguing.

Lively infers all kinds of stuff from the fresco, and from history. There’s the everyday workings of the business, what makes Quintus Pompeius a rich man. Along with his wealth comes a lot of debauchey and evildoing. Servilia, a young slave girl, is routinely taken advantage of by Quintus and his teenage son. Livia, Quintus’ wife, also entertains her lover there, partaking in a passionate affair in the very same spots where her husband rapes their slave. How … Roman … of these wealthy humans.

Eventually, Servilia plays another role, as our narrator, often taunted by Quintus’ young children, finds herself in a pickle: The boys are being boys and argue whether they should simply maim the bird or brutally kill it. As they move toward a decision, Servilia steps in and rescues our narrator. This, of course, defies the master’s child, so Servilia is going to be in trouble. Or, as much trouble as she can be in, as she’s already a slave who is routinely raped by her master. There’s only so many things he can do to punish her further, but it’s implied Quintus has a temper, and he’ll figure something out.

You’ve probably noted that this story takes place in Pompei, and if you’re an author and are going to use Pompie in a story, you’re probably going to use its destruction in some way. That happens here, though I’m sure this is the first time it’s told from the POV of a pretty garden chicken, one who seems to have a magical connection to the slave girl who saved her from a brutal death. I’ll not reveal the very end, not for our purple swamp hen, as you know what happens to (nearly) everybody else.

The second story, “Abroad,” is about a couple of free-wheelin’ painters (the arty kind), traveling Europe, sketching everything they see. They’re also particularly proud of their lack of routine, their detachment from such societal norms as watches, jobs, or money. That is until their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere in Spain and they need to get it towed, get it fixed, and find somewhere to live, something to eat; they have plenty of traveler’s checks (read into that as much as you want) but nowhere to cash them. When they suddenly find themselves painting for their supper, they start to rethink their lifestyle.

“The Row” is a philosophical—existential, mostly—investigation into a spat between our narrator and her husband. A “row,” apparently, is another name for a fight over the UK. Anyway, our hero considers every decision she’s made, what each choice has led to, how she could have just have easily led a different life if any small thing was different. This all seems sparked by her hubby running into an old grammar school flame at a party, one of those very chance meetings that leads to irreversible actions and reactions.

My first foray into Penelope Lively’s writing is a huge success, as I like all these stories in The Purple Swamp Hen. I like each of them, but holistically, I love that each story couldn’t have been more different than the one previous, as Lively seems to be able to take on any kind of voice she wants and execute it effectively. Good skills to have for a writer, one I now know about. Not a bad haul for a Friday, and when you throw in a working refrigerator, I’d say the weekend is off to a smashing start.