Aug 09

Book Review: A Far Cry from Kensington

A Far Cry from KensingtonA Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

I’d never read anything or heard anything about this author, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I don’t always like to read stories about female protagonists set in historical periods, because it often fills me with feminist rage, but Mrs. Hawkins manages to live in the world without being too terribly oppressed by it. For one thing, she’s a widow who has her own profession as literary editor.

Back in the 1950s, as now, people who want to get in the publishing industry will often give up quite a bit of pride and salary to do so. And this was back before publishing businesses were run like corporations, where they still had a whiff of establishment and propriety to them, a genteel sort of art. So the story deals quite a bit with the amusing inner world of the publishing business in post-war London.

It also deals with the interpersonal dramas of those living within the rooming house in Kensington. There’s Isobel, not many years younger than Mrs. Hawkins but still a spoiled child who only wants to have fun and go see shows. There’s William, the medical student, the Carlins who have spectacular fights, and Wanda, the Polish dressmaker who is equally attached to her Catholicism and her suffering. Wanda receives an ominous note, and then an ominous phone call from a mysterious malefactor, and the drama sets the whole house aflutter.

Mrs. Hawkins’ own personal albatross is Hector, a “pisseur du copie” or literary hack who happens to have a famous author for a girlfriend. His famous author girlfriend is constantly trying to use her influence to get Hector published. Only Hector writes terribly, and Mrs. Hawkins is impolitic enough to tell him it to his face several times, a fact which gets her fired more than once.

The novel kind of meanders at a steady pace. I liked the characters, especially Mrs. Hawkins’ wry observational asides, such as “if you have trouble concentrating, you need to get a cat, as a cat will settle you down.” I liked her interactions with her coworkers, and the sedate pace of life even in the big city.

Later she has a romance, which seemed to come completely out of nowhere. It wasn’t a whirlwind romance, handled in the context of the story the way a romance would have been handled in a man’s memoir, as a secondary aside to a larger story, such as: “After the war I got married, and some years later we had a child and then another. it was about this time that Mr. Dubbins brought up the Gibaltrar affair again.” It was strange to see the romance just kind of shoehorned in, like “it was time to find another husband and this guy would do.”

Despite a couple of dark turns, I found the novel mostly cheerful and fun, a nice little romp through a time and place I don’t know much about. Take her diet advice with a grain of salt though.

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