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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review: A Far Cry From Kensington

A Far Cry from Kensington New Directions (2000), Paperback, 192 pages

I was handed this fictional memoir, by someone I trust to provide quality literary experiences- he assured me of its solid storytelling, and richness of content.

For me, prior to being handed this book, Muriel Spark really brought two things to mind: lighting cigars, (get it?) and books like Please Don't Eat the Daisies , which in reality share nothing with her.
I had no idea.

In his book, Rotten: No Irish No Blacks No Dogs, one finds out just how literary minded John Lydon is and how he was a fan of lots of great literature (Graham Greene's work springs to mind)... I was shocked when preparing to write this that Muriel Spark's Book The Public Image was where Lydon got the name for PiL. Had I not read his book I never would've guessed it but my suspicions were piqued when reviewing Spark's body of work.

In A Far Cry From Kensington, one gets an accurate portrait of post-war London life, with cramped and damp, recession and thrift, and during the progression of the book it's subsequent awakening from its 6 year nightmare.

Being an Anglophile I might've been satisfied with that and would have been polite about it, but disappointed with its lack of plot arrow.

The plot arrow is large and sharp and accurate: An overweight widow in a boarding house and works at a publisher, insults a literary world hanger-on, which in subsequent years, leads to adverse circumstances over and over again for her, all the while reaffirming her belief that the pisseur de copie "pisser or copy" is just what he is, an opportunistic second banana with no moral compunction about exploitation of personal relationships, and it being a small world, capable of infecting more than just the working world of Spark's protagonist, Mrs. Hawkins.

As A Far Cry From Kensington progresses, Mrs. Hawkins loses the insulation she grew during the war; both emotionally and physically- it falls away in the form of weight loss, the loss as allegory for her maturation, as evidenced by her questioning her faith, learning to stand firm when challenged about her interpersonal convictions and rising to the occasion when called upon by her neighbors who have revealed formerly private crises, that stemmed from character flaws that Mrs Hawkins shows us without a word of avarice, only predictive empathy, from someone who by virtue of being a war-widow, feels it necessary to conduct oneself with more maturity than others of her age.

I've hit the spoiler wall; let me just say within all the wool and teacups and rugs and wallpaper there's crazies, death, fist-fighting, insults, medical emergencies, injustice, karma, foreigners, revenge, hoodoo and more. A perfect mix of atmosphere and activity for anyone looking to read outside of genre.

It was also surprising for me, because I thought she was a 1940's & 50's writer (like I said I didn't know anything about her - just the name) - her style in this book doesn't give away that it was written 1988. Her arc runs from Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1961 to 2004's The Finishing School.

I suppose that since I'm a PiL fan I'll read The Public Image next and see what more she has to offer.

Final words: read A Far Cry From Kensington, already.

1st ed cover