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[496] A Far Cry from Kensington – Muriel Spark

” My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is not to demonstrate her ability too much. You give advice; you say, do this, do that, I think I’ve got you a job, don’t worry, leave it to me. All that, and in the end you feel spooky, empty, haunted. And if you then want to wriggle out of so much responsibility, the people around you are outraged. You have stepped out of your role. It makes them furious. ” (Ch.11, p.130)

My first Muriel Spark novel will not be last. I have refrained from perusing her works because I do not know where to begin since she has a long oeuvre of forty some novels. The semi-autobiographical A Far Cry from Kensington merits a double recommendation: a friend with trusted reading taste and an endorsement from The King’s English Bookshop book lists. this jewel of a book is pure delight for a day of reading in the sun.

Mrs. Hawkins is the narrator in retrospection. Now living in Italy, she is a war widow looking back on her life in London thirty years earlier when she lived in a South Kensington rooming house and worked in publishing in 1954. (This really evokes 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff.) Besides her day job as an editor at a small press that, despite its quality serious books, barely survives the austerities of war-time, she dispenses advice to the tenants at the house. Though at a relatively young age of 28, she is of sufficient charm and her personality magnetic enough to attract even her boss, who struggles to keep the publishing firm afloat, to confide in her matters that later used as evidence against his fraudulent activities. (Sadly, he was out of his wit, thinking perhaps he might have a shot at getting back to his first love—books).

In the months between my abrupt departure from the Ullswater Press and Martin York’s arrest I wasted my time with a sense of justified guilt. I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. (Ch. 5, p.53)

Things take a sinister turn at the rooming house when Wanda Podolak, an immigrant Polish dressmaker, receives a mysterious letter accusing her of evading income taxes to some authorities. Petrified that she shall be deported back to her homeland, she only seeks the consul of Mrs. Hawkins, whose investigative effort amounts to nothing. This incident finally takes a preposterous turn for worse when Mrs. Hawkins finds herself being the culprit. From there Wanda has a nervous breakdown.

Meanwhile, our upright narrator, whose forthright, no non-sense manner puts her career at stake. When a self-congratulatory hack writer, Hector Bartlett, stalks her to get his drivel published by her press, she sneers at him and tells him in his face that he is a pisseur de copie, the French term for hack writer who urinates books. Unbeknownst to her, and therefore sadly, this hanger-on has an affair with a well-regarded author, Emma Loy, who has a “morbid dependence” on him—and Mrs. Hawkins loses her job.

In A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark, with glows of lyricism, delivers a narrative that focuses on the book publishing industry in post-war England and Mars. Hawkins’ career as an editor. Balancing her profession is her investigation on the perpetrator who contrives to force ot a tenant in her rooming house. Not only does Spark’s writing hums with creations, she also brings alive the life of London and its skein of diverse residents. Nancy Hawkins will be memorable for her integrity (and her maxim “No life can be carried on unless people are honest.”) and, no offense, her fatness, which she anatomizes convincingly, with a tingle of self-depracating humor. It’s her physical attribute that breaks ice and invites confidence. In a way, her fatness camouflages her spikiness.

189 pp. New Directions Classic. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]


4 Responses

  1. I really like Muriel Spark, but she is certainly quirky at times! (I mean that in a good way, however). I read The Girls of Slender Means in the spring, which was very good and highly recommend her classic–The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (the movie is excellent, too). I’ve read that one a couple of times even.

  2. If you google the blog Stuck In A Book , Simon who does that blog ran a Muriel Spark reading week and there are several M Spark books reviewed across a few blogs if you’re interested. Cheers

  3. […] Second World War in Hong Kong where a young woman became a spy for the Brits; Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington delivers a narrative that focuses on the book publishing industry in post-war England and Mrs. […]

  4. […] around family, relationships, friendship and missed opportunity into a book that flows seamlessly. A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark In A Far Cry from Kensington, Muriel Spark, with glows of lyricism, delivers a […]

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