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The Purple Swamp and Other Stories by Penelope Lively

LivelyBooker Prize winner Lively gives us yet another book with keen observations of human nature and told with empathy and humor.

The title story takes place in the garden of Quintus Pompeius in ancient Pompei. Located in what is now Naples, Italy, Pompei was a Roman city destroyed in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The narrator is a purple swamphen, a bird native to swampy marsh areas and now an endangered species. In the lush garden of Quintus Pompeius, as in other gardens of wealthy Romans, this beautiful bird was kept for ornamental purposes.

The story highlights the debauched life of the upper class Romans, especially that of the ruler Pompeius. This particular garden “hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm” (p2). Pompeius’s children took pleasure in pulling the wings off butterflies and the feathers off the birds. A bond develops between the 14-year-old slave girl (herself abused) and the purple swamphen.

Lively anthropomorphizes the bird-narrator to lend an amusing detachment to her observations of humans-“a forensic interest in the practices of this curious species”—a species that drinks and eats to excess, enslaves others, and practices all manner of abuse. The reader cheers when the volcano erupts and the innocent creatures—the birds and the slave girl--escape nature’s onslaught.

The other stories in the collection explore the complexities of the human psyche and the near impossibility of knowing another. In “The Bridge,” an estranged couple does not discuss a tragedy that rocked their marriage. In “Points of View,” a scriptwriter works on the point of view of her characters yet fails to understand that of the man with whom she lives. In” A Biography,” a writer gathers information from the intimate friends, husband, and lover of a noted woman after her death. Yet all fail to grasp the cause of her inner sorrow. “License to Kill” explores the unlikely past of an 80-year-old woman who is now dowdy and frail.And “DIY” and “The Weekend” are excellent ghost stories written with humor and irony.

The Purple Swamp and Other Stories is an insightful collection not to be missed.

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