A Far Cry from Kensington is the story of Mrs Hawkins, a young widow whose husband was killed in the Second World War and who works as an editor in 1950s London. Mrs Hawkins (no one ever uses or even seems to know her first name) lives in a ‘rooming-house’ in Kensington along with a varied cast of characters: Wanda, the mournful Polish dressmaker, Kate, a super-efficient and respectable nurse, William, a medical student with a love of classical music, Basil and Eva, a quiet and reserved couple, and Isobel, a young secretary with a wealthy father who lives in a whirl of parties. All these people, as well as her friends and colleagues, look to Mrs Hawkins for advice and help with their many problems. She is described by everyone in terms such as ‘reliable’ and ‘capable’, they all confide their secrets to her but no one expects her to have a life or feelings of her own.
The novel is narrated by Mrs Hawkins, looking back on her time in Kensington during long nights of insomnia years later. This reminiscing creates a nostalgic mood under the witty and lively surface of the novel. I liked Mrs Hawkins’ voice, the way she confided to the reader the private thoughts that lay behind her competent and helpful image, and offered pieces of practical advice on matters such as dieting and how to concentrate when writing (the answer is to get a cat, apparently), commenting that ‘I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book’.
I like Muriel Spark’s concise, sharp style, and the novel creates the atmosphere of Kensington and the rooming-house in only a few details. Mrs Hawkins’ fellow lodgers are first described in terms of the sounds she hears from their rooms – Isobel’s chatter on the telephone, Wanda’s tea-parties with her Polish ‘friends and enemies’, Kate dragging furniture around during her obsessive cleaning sessions. While reading this novel, I imagined 1950s London as a run-down and shabby city that was full of drama and eccentricity, especially in the publishing world, where people are constantly being sacked or arrested for fraud or engaging in various literary rivalries and disputes.
The plot of A Far Cry from Kensington is very unusual, beginning with some threatening anonymous letters received by Wanda, the dressmaker. At first the novel seems like a traditional mystery, with each of the lodgers being under suspicion. However, it doesn’t continue for long in this vein; Mrs Hawkins (obviously with the benefit of hindsight) reveals the culprit within a few chapters, although we still don’t yet know how or why this person decided to persecute Wanda or what the result of such malicious behaviour will be. It’s a surreal story that brings in radionics (apparently a method of curing people’s ailments using a strange electronic box that was all the rage in the 1950s) and creates connections between various characters in a fantastical and never fully explained fashion.
The aspect of the book I liked best was the story of Mrs Hawkins, her various jobs in publishing companies, and how she began to make changes in her life and the way other people perceive her. I also enjoyed the atmosphere and sense of place in the novel. Although the overall tone of the book was witty and hopeful, I thought the last chapter (without giving anything away) was a little darker and more unsettling somehow. I think it’s because of Muriel Spark’s sparse writing style that she can leave the reader with this feeling of mystery at the end of her novels.
A Far Cry from Kensington is one of my favourite Sparks so far, along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means, which probably means that I prefer her slightly more conventional novels (although they all seem to contain surreal and unexpected elements).
This post is my rather last-minute participation in Muriel Spark Reading Week, but I’m definitely quite interested in reading more of Muriel Spark’s novels now.