Lively by name, lively by nature: if there is one quality that unites the fifteen stories in this new collection, it is the author’s curiosity about life. Most are told from a single, female point of view, with characters musing on relationships and the events that have shaped their lives so far. The protagonists tend to be educated women – writers, artists, a copy editor, a BBC employee, an academic, a researcher, a retired spy (the title story, featuring a purple swamp hen which is resident in one of the gardens of ancient Pompeii, is a colourful exception). They are the kind of women who get invited to spend weekends in the Cotswolds at the second homes of wealthier friends who work in the City. They are adept at considering details and working out connections. They are aware of the need to make difficult accommodations in a marriage.
Given their emotional articulacy, it is particularly enjoyable to watch these women get things wrong. In ‘Theory of Mind’, Harriet’s husband explains the meaning of this phrase, which describes ‘the brain’s ability to empathize – for a person to conceive of an alternative point of view, that someone