Sunday, 30 July 2017

Something I Read - The Purple Swamp Hen by Penelope Lively

I hesitate to disparage fiction that is essentially competent. As someone who occasionally has a bash at fiction, I know how hard it is to write. This collection of short stories is entertaining enough but it is shallow, in my view. I quite want a bit of revelation, a sense that existence somehow has either become stranger through reading or suddenly some aspect of it makes slightly better sense. For me, this book didn't deliver a single phrase that resonated nor a single moment of epiphany. Worse, I found myself irritated by the assumptions made from time to time about the reader's attitudes - the story called Lorna and Tom and the one called Mrs Bennet most especially come to mind in this regard. Lorna and Tom didn't even make psychological sense to me.

DIY was quite a nice ghostly sort of story. In fact, they were all okay, but in an awfully pat kind of way, everything in a little package, no resonances, just that old-fashioned set up of situation and then a twist (that mostly you could see coming from a long way off), all accompanied by a slightly cliched use of language. I was left without any sense that the characters, situations - and indeed the stories themselves - would expand in my memory, long after I'd put down the book. Instead, I came away with a slight sense that I'd just read a whole lot of creative writing exercises.

I suppose the writer who occupies the same sort of fictional world - middle class England, essentially - is Jane Gardam. I'm afraid Penelope Lively comes off a very, very distant runner up beside Gardam, who is observant and compassionate and writes superbly. Perhaps the comparison is unfair, as I regard Gardam as one of the best writers of fiction about English life in existence today, (if you haven't read anything by her, you are missing out). On the other hand, I used to like Lively too - I found her when I was living in Belgrade and took The Road to Lichfield out of the British Council Library on Kneza Mihailovica, if that was the name of the walking street.

Let us have a minute's silence for all those wonderful British Council Libraries that provided a lifeline for so many in foreign countries for so long. The one in Budapest is shut up now. I bet the one in Belgrade is too. Libraries are so much more than repositories of books. The effect of shutting a library is never positive, no matter where it is done. But I digress. How unusual

In conclusion, The Purple Swamp Hen is reasonably diverting but not an illuminating collection - at least not so far as I was concerned.

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