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.