‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ by Muriel Spark

FarCry

Fiction – hardcover; Virago Modern Classics; 208 pages; 2008.

The late Muriel Spark is one of those writers whose back catalogue is so long and eclectic it’s almost impossible to know where to start. I read Aiding and Abetting last year, because I was intrigued by the real life disappearance of Lord Lucan upon which the novel is based. Having seen KevinfromCanada’s glowing review of A Far Cry From Kensington last month I decided this novel, first published in 1988, was the next to try.

I treated myself to a lovely Virago Modern Classics edition, featuring an introduction by Ali Smith, and found myself reading the entire book in just two longish sittings. To say I was utterly charmed by it would probably be an understatement. This is a deliciously enjoyable story that is so perfectly constructed it’s almost impossible to find fault with it — on any level. The prose is simple, the characters believable and the plot expertly drawn, so that you’re never quite sure where it’s going to take you and then feel overwhelmingly satisfied when you arrive at its destination.

The story is narrated by Mrs Hawkins, a war widow, looking back on her life in London some 30 years earlier when, in 1954, she lived in a South Kensington rooming house and worked in publishing. She was only 28 at the time but had a matronly air about her.

There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.

Even her boss, Martin York, of the struggling publishing firm Ullswater Press, confides in her, inviting her to his office for a minute (“A minute meant an hour, sometimes more”), where he would stand at his window, or sit in his leather armchair, and regale her with his thoughts. (Despite his confiding tone, he never reveals that he’s carrying out fraudulent activities for which he’s later arrested and imprisoned for seven years.)

But her forthright manner and her maxim that “no life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest” lands her in hot water. When a purple-prosed would-be writer, Hector Bartlett, starts stalking her in order to get his work published by Ullswater Press, she tells him in no uncertain terms that he is a pisseur de copie, a French phrase for a hack writer who urinates copy. Unfortunately, for Mrs Hawkins, Mr Bartlett is having an affair with a well regarded author, Emma Loy, who has a lot of powerful sway in the book industry. You can guess what happens. Mrs Hawkins not only loses her job, her candid admission (and Mr Bartlett) follows her wherever she goes, and comes back to haunt her in more ways than one…

Meanwhile, back at the rooming house, one of the tenants, Wanda, an immigrant Polish dressmaker, receives a poison pen letter accusing her of “not declaring your income to the Authorities”. Wanda almost has a nervous breakdown over this, because she’s petrified of being deported back to her homeland. This is where the ever-dependable Mrs Hawkins steps in to do a bit of detective sleuthing to see who might write such a nasty letter. Her efforts come to nothing. It’s only when the letter writer phones Wanda to warn her off, that things take a sinister turn for the worse and Mrs Hawkins finds herself being accused of the very crime she’s trying to investigate.

So what A Far Cry From Kensington delivers is a two-pronged narrative, one that focuses on the book publishing industry in 1954 and Mrs Hawkins’ career as an editor (this makes fascinating reading in itself), and another that focuses on a sinister campaign to frighten a lodger out of her wits, but to what end?

What makes this novel work so wonderfully is, of course, the detail that brings the book trade and post-war London to life. But it’s also the sparkling wit (I laughed out loud several times), the delicious characters (Hector Bartlett, for instance, seems as frightful as his prose) and the seamless weaving of two different narratives that are expertly drawn together right at the very end to deliver a really satisfying conclusion.

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23 thoughts on “‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ by Muriel Spark

  1. I havent read this one though do have a copy of it and after these book thoughts I shall be reading it that bit sooner. I am a huge fan of Muriel Spark thanks to Polly (Novel Insights) and her utter love for her. Memento Mori is the one I am going to read next as it sounds very dark and Polly got me a lovely old orange classic version of it, she also chose Aiding and Abetting for our old book group and it was a great book to discuss.

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  2. I think you’d like this one, Simon. It’s such a fun read. It makes me want to read all her other stuff, but she wrote sooooooooo many novels it will take me years! I like the sound of Memento Mori (I looked it up on wiki), but I might just hold off on buying any new books for awhile. I do have a copy of her Ballad of Peckham Rye, so I might try that next.

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  3. I read this one last year (same beautiful copy) and really enjoyed it. I am also a huge Muriel Spark fan. This most recent I read was Loitering With Intent, which I thought was exceptionally witty. Next up for me is The Comforters as I’m waiting for the new Virago edition of Memento Mori to be released next year.

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  4. I really like Muriel Spark and have this one on my bookshelves (not the nice new Virago edition unfortunately). What impresses me about her writing is that her books are so very different. She seems to be able to write completely different stories and writes them well over and over. I need to dig out my copy of this!

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  5. I love those Virago hardcovers — they have such a nice feel to them and they’re light enough to carry around with you. I might have to hang out for the Memento Mori edition! (You shouldn’t tell me these things, Claire.)
    I love the name of Loitering with Intent, it sounds kind of sinister; is it?

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  6. An excellent review that I think captures the wonderful spirit of this book. I would like to think that after a period of a decade or two the reading public is willing to look at Sparks with a more serious eye. I think she captured a period of UK history with a particularly perceptive eye; it would be nice to see that recognized. I have a couple of Sparks’ collections on hand but haven’t yet decided on what order I’ll read them — must admit that schedule Memento Mori is probably the hardest decision.

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  7. I too read this one last year (attracted by the same beautiful edition) and enjoyed it. Have read The Ballad of Peckham Rye since, but I think it will be a while before I read more as although darkly funny, they feel somewhat soulless to me. Well written but ultimately not satifying.
    Have you read any Barbara Pym? I can see you acquired Excellent Women and I enjoyed this more.

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  8. Oh, I’d almost buy this one just for the cover! I’ve only read the well-known-you-know-what Muriel Spark but this sounds delicious. Will look out for it. Thanks Kimbobo. (BTW Carlton, I’ve only read one Pym, Quartet in autumn, which I liked a lot. I have Excellent women but haven’t got to it yet).

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  9. Love Muriel Spark, and like Claire I have also read Loitering with Intent fairly recently. She is right, it is witty. And it is also about publishing– but in a very different way than Far Cry. And the thing I love about Spark is how different her books are from one another and how delightfully quirky they can be. She is an author I worry about running out of. Good thing she wrote so much.

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  10. I love the way she brings London to life in this book. Funnily enough I’m now reading a book set in the same time period, but from the point of view of West Indian immigrants, and the picture of London painted is far, far different: depressing, racist and with glaring gaps between rich and poor.

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  11. Interesting that you think them soulless… I thought this book had a big heart.
    Not read any Barbara Pym but, as you point out, Excellent Women is in the reading queue. It’s an old battered secondhand edition I mooched from someone last year. Have no idea where it is now, though, so it could be awhile before I get around to reading it: I need to find it first! (I think it might be available in one of these nice Virago Modern Classics editions, actually.)

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  12. The cover is a textile design by Lucienne Day. It’s called “calyx” and was launched at the Festival of Britain in 1951. Apparently it won the International Design Award of the American Institute of Decorators, if that means anything to you. All this info is included in the book.

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  13. Glad I’m not the only one who worries about “running out of” particular authors. It kind of explains why I still haven’t read John McGahern’s The Pornographer, because once I’ve read that, I have no more McGahern books to read, and that will be a really, really sad day.

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  14. That would not happen to be Sam Selvon would it? Maybe The Lonely Londoners, the first of the Moses trilogy, one of my favorite series of all time. If not, conside this a Selvon recommendation. It is a very different picture of the London of the time, but the two worlds are quite comparable.

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  15. Yes, indeedy, that’s what I’m reading. The cover image under “What kimbofo’s reading” didn’t by any chance give it away? Brilliant guess if not!
    It’s a wonderful book. I wasn’t sure if I could read something written in a Jamaican patois, but it’s been smooth sailing all the way. It describes a quite grim London, but I love how all the characters initially grow to love the city, because I remember I found it the world’s most depressing place when I came here. I soon fell in love with it though.

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  16. Thought I’d read this, but I mistook it for Loitering with Intent. I love how you can just blaze through a Spark in a weekend. Sadly my local library only has two of her novels, damn them.

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  17. It was a a guess, but not a brilliant one — there are not a lot of West Indian books about London. Most readers stop after The Lonely Londoners; you should find a way to read the text two (Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating) because they do complete the depressing story.
    And just to mess up your TBR pile even more, consider Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore to complete this “London trilogy”. It won the Booker in 1979 and is set in about the same time as Spark and Selvon’s novels. You know this part of London well and, I think, would find it another excellent example of an author capturing the city at the time.
    And then perhaps (hint, hint) you could do us a photo essay on what the settings of all three authors look like now? I’d love it.

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  18. Oh no, you really must stop giving me more book suggestions or my TBR is going to become even higher! Mind you, I almost bought “Offshore” a few weeks back, as it has been reissued by Fourth Estate. I didn’t clock it was the same time period as Spark & Selvon’s books, though.
    I’m really enjoying “The Lonely Londoners” so I expect I’ll have to read the two follow-ups.
    As for a photo essay, I may just have to do that at some point… I find it quite mind-boggling that the Notting Hill described in Selvon’s book is so grim, depressing and poverty-stricken — it’s one of the poshest areas in London these days!
    Ditto for Spark’s descriptions of Kensington.

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  19. They certainly make for easy reading… I’m growing to love these older, shorter novels, rather than the doorstoppers most authors seem to churn out these days. Bigger ain’t necessarily better, right?

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  20. Offshore is set on Battersea Reach in 1961 so it does fit generally with the other two (as does the gentrification aspect). And it is only 130 pages in most editions, so it is not a long read by any means — and the central character does move to other parts of London. As another “Old-Dominioneer”, I love the way your Australian eyes look at my favorite city — so if you would do both a reading and photo look at these three pictures, I would much appreciate it.

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