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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.

Something I really enjoyed about the Easter holiday was going to a singing event at a local church on Friday.  Quite a large crowd of singers turned up and we spent the afternoon rehearsing Mozart’s Requiem with some instrumentalists, before performing it as a concert in the evening. I find Mozart’s Requiem such a beautiful piece of music, so I was quite excited about this event. The singing was aided by tea and hot cross buns, and the concert raised money for the church’s new choir school so there were some cute little choir boys who handed out bouquets to the soloists at the end!

Another nice thing about the weekend was realising that I have acquired several new books that I am looking forward to reading. First of all, speaking of Barbara Pym, while I was at my parents’ house at the weekend, I managed to hunt down A Very Private Eye, a collection of Pym’s diaries and letters, and I can’t wait to find out more about the life and personality of a writer I admire. I think it is interesting when reading an author’s letters or diaries to see how much the person seems familiar from their novels and to what extent a different side to their character is revealed. I will be particularly interested to read Pym’s diaries from while she was studying in Oxford and her letters to Philip Larkin. He is one of my favourite poets so for a while now I have wanted to learn more about the friendship between them.

While rummaging through boxes of my old books at my parents’ house, I also unearthed a Muriel Spark novel, A Far Cry from Kensington, which (if I am organised enough) I hope to read for the Muriel Spark Reading Week at Stuck-in-a-Book. I have loved some of Muriel Spark’s books (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means) while strangely there are others I have not liked much at all (Loitering with Intent is one I remember). I do find her interesting so I’m definitely looking forward to reading this novel, especially as a quote from the Sunday Times on the cover describes it as set in ‘a 1950s Kensington of shabby-genteel bedsitters, espresso bars and A-line dresses’. That sounds perfect to me.

One of my recent book purchases is The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen, which I have already started reading. As I like her writing very much, I have decided to try to read as many of Elizabeth Bowen’s novels as I can over the next few months. She also published some travel writing (A Time in Rome) and wrote memoirs about her childhood (Seven Winters) and her family’s house in Ireland (Bowen’s Court), so I’d like to try these different genres of her writing as well. The House in Paris is so far a beautifully written and mysterious novel, and I hope to write more about it later.

Finally, I have also acquired a copy of The New Moon with the Old, a novel by Dodie Smith. I enjoyed I Capture the Castle but only discovered recently that Dodie Smith had written other novels for adults. The New Moon with the Old looks like an entertaining and magical story about a woman who becomes secretary to an eccentric family, so I’m saving it for when I’m in the mood to be cheered up by my reading.

Has anyone read (or would you like to read) any of these books?

Winter’s Bone is the story of sixteen-year-old Ree who lives with her parents and two younger brothers in the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. When the novel opens, Ree’s father Jessup has disappeared and he is in trouble with the law so the sheriff is looking for him. Ree finds out that Jessup has put up the family’s house and land as bond so that if he doesn’t appear in court, they will lose everything they have. So Ree sets out to look for Jessup, determined that her family will not suffer.

The settlement in the Ozarks is isolated from the outside world, huddled in a desolately beautiful icy landscape. Ree is a Dolly, which has a particular meaning in the book. The Dollys live harsh lives and have no time for the law or the urban way of life. They settle disagreements in their own violent way but protect each other against outsiders so that when Ree tells the people she meets on her search that she is a Dolly it can make them more inclined to help her. But being a Dolly can also mean leading an empty life consumed by hatred. One reason that Ree is so desperate to keep the house and land is so that she can give her brothers the best upbringing she can and help them to avoid what she fears is their destiny.

Ree’s grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives led outside square law.

Certain names are repeated through the generations of Dollys, and these names represent the Dolly traditions, seeming to predestine those men to a certain kind of life. The novel is weighed down by a heavy sense of fate while describing Ree’s attempts to make sure she and her brothers escape it.

If you named a son Milton it was a decision that attempted to chart the life he’d live before he even stepped into it, for among the Dollys the name carried expectations and history. Some names could rise to walk many paths in many directions, but Jessups, Arthurs, Haslams and Miltons were born to walk only the beaten Dolly path to the shadowed place, live and die in keeping with those bloodline customs fiercest held.

With so much violence and revenge, the novel has an Old Testament feeling. Although it is set in the present day, I felt there was always an awareness of the ancient past. The mixture of the novel’s timeless, mythological setting with everyday modern life creates a unique atmosphere. At one point Ree goes to hide in a cave where her ancestors lived and we discover the story of how the settlement was formed. The isolated community has its own history and legends which shape the lives of its present inhabitants.

One of the things I liked about this book was the writing style, which is quite idiosyncratic. It is compressed and poetic and sometimes the words are in a slightly unusual order or odd inventive pieces of slang slip in. This helps to create an unfamiliar and self-enclosed world that I found quite vivid. Although it contains elements of harshness and violence, the novel is almost like a fairy tale in its depiction of a community hidden away from the outside world, the bleakness of the mountain landscape and the blanket of snow covering it.

I also appreciated the interesting characters, especially Ree, her brothers, her intimidating uncle Teardrop and her best friend Gail. While looking for her father, Ree encounters many different people and asks them for help. Some are on her side while others want to harm her and it is difficult to tell which is which. In fact many of the characters are ambiguous and shifting and it is difficult for Ree to be sure about them or to trust them, making the book partly about the balance between her self-reliance and her acceptance of the occasional kindness from those around her.

Ree herself is a very independent and brave character. Even though she is only sixteen, she takes responsibility for her brothers, teaching them how to shoot and cook so they can look after themselves. Her mother is unable to help because she is suffering from severe depression and spends most of the day sitting in the house silently. The story of Ree’s mother is very sad, especially when the novel shows Ree and her brothers looking at old photographs of how she used to be ‘when her parts were gathered and she’d stood complete with sparking dark eyes and a fast laugh’. Her breakdown was not because of a lack of resilience – quite the opposite, she is described as tough, having endured many troubles before her life finally became too difficult to bear.

This book wasn’t really like anything else I’d read although it did slightly remind me of Morvern Callar by Alan Warner, because of its independent heroine, the vividness of the isolated setting (in America rather than Scotland though!) and unusual writing style. It is also a film which I’d seen before I read the book and would very much recommend.