Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Reading group: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel spark

This will be a short report, as there was a unanimously positive verdict from our group (no argument to report), and it's a fairly light read which however we all enjoyed immensely.

It's the first-person retrospective account, given in the 80s (when the book was published), of a time in the 50s when narrator Nancy Hawkins was a young publisher's assistant living in Kensington lodgings alongside an assortment of odd-ball and interesting tenants. Although only twenty-eight years old at the time she is referred to as 'Mrs Hawkins' by everyone, due to her status as a war widow, her comfortable physique, her comfortingly straightforward attitude and her tendency to give wise advice. Partly due to her straightforwardness, however, and partly due to her decision, in the course of the novel, to rebel against this profile and lose weight, her home and work life become entangled, in a plot which takes on something of the whodunnit.

We all agreed that the plot (which it would be egregious to give away here) was quite preposterous, but none of us minded in the least, as the delight of the novel was in the voice and personality of the narrator (and, indeed the advice she gives), the wonderful elegance and economy of Spark's prose style (it's a shortish novel, and people marvelled at what she had managed to pack into its pages), Spark's wit, and the evocative portrayal of a world which has gone, some characteristics of which however linger on in modern publishing. (At one point a publisher interviewing Mrs Hawkins tells her: " 'Yes, many of our staff here are in fact fairly interested in books.' " )

Although we deemed the book to be light, we did note that among all of this drollery and outrageous plottery, Spark does touch on some serious issues: beyond the central theme - which is literary pretension - bubble McCarthyism, the status of Polish immigrants in Britain after the war, illegitimate pregnancy, and poverty and the impact of the welfare state and free education.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here