by Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark is probably best known for her novel The Prime Of Miss Jean Brody. It was made into a TV series, and is considered in some circles to be a modern classic. I must admit that when I purchased this particular book I hadn’t made the connection.
A Far Cry From Kensington displays great wit and charm. It is a relatively short (190 pages) and uncomplicated story about life in the world of 1950s publishing. By uncomplicated I mean it has an easy flow with no sudden swerves or change of direction. As far as the characters are concerned, it is far from uncomplicated.
The book has a friendly and at times informal style as its narrator, Mrs Hawkins, looks back at a year in which her life changed dramatically. It is 1954 and London is still scarred by war.With rationing only just coming to an end, Mrs Hawkins, a 28-year-old war widow, is living frugally but conformably in a furnished room in a quiet corner of Kensington. The tenants each have their own eccentricities but there is an air of companionship between them that makes it sound homelier that might otherwise be the case when a group of strangers find themselves living under one roof.
Mrs Hawkins has respectable job working for a publisher, but all is not well and there is an uncertainty in the air about the company’s future. Then, on her way into work one morning she has an unexpected meeting with one Hector Bartlett that will change everything. In fact, this meeting costs her two jobs and makes the obnoxious would-be writer a thorn in Mrs Hawkins’ side for many years to come.
The book has some wonderful characters and the vagueness of some of Mrs Hawkins’ memories is actually quite refreshing. I have never been a fan of first-person narratives, due mainly, I think, to the certain knowledge that I could never recall past events with such clarity. It is a light-hearted look at life during a period of profound change. Britain was on the cusp of a revolution in music, social attitudes and economic prosperity, but the characters and situations portrayed in this story are comfortingly old-fashioned.
I found the style of the narrative refreshingly honest and just loved the character of Mrs Hawkins. A good, unchallenging holiday read.