by Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark’s eighteenth acclaimed novel is a modern morality tale combining with, pathos, and outrageous irony with a touch of the sinister and fantastic. The story moves from a rooming house in South Kensington to the grubby edges of London’s post-war literary circles – a somewhat off-kilter world populated by a remarkable group of memorable eccentrics: The staff of a seedy publishing concern – a mad menagerie of the deformed, the disabled, and the socially outcast… A malicious journalistic hack who practices a deadly brand of pseudo-technological witchcraft… And, most important, the narrator herself – stout young war widow and editor whose razor-sharp tongue inadvertently spawns more than one disaster. By turns hilarious, sad, and utterly enthralling, it is a stunning tour de force from the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
I thoroughly enjoyed this first dip into Muriel Spark! By page 14 I was totally involved with the characters and would have loved to be able to jump right into ‘that boardinghouse in South Kensington’. She does characters to perfection, and eccentric ones too!
Mrs. Hawkins is our narrator, a war widow, only 26 years old. She is very heavy and because of that people seem to see her as trustworthy and reliable, almost motherly and pour out their problems to her. She sees this and just accepts the perception and acts accordingly. As our story moves on though she begins to chaff at being expected to act in a certain manner and decides to lose weight and just be Nancy, a young woman, not Mrs. Hawkins.
Throughout the story she is always thinking ‘Now, my advice to anyone…’. She usually had excellent advice. She had a lot of common sense…
“Now, it fell to me to give advice to many authors which in at least two cases bore fruit. So I will repeat it here, free of charge. It proved helpful to the type of writer who has some imagination and wants to write a novel but doesn’t know how to start.
‘You are writing a letter to a friend,’ was the sort of thing I used to say. ‘And this is a dear and close friend, real – or better – invented in your mind like a fixation. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you. Now, you are not writing about the relationship between your friend and yourself; you take that for granted. You are only confiding an experience that you think only he will enjoy reading. What you have to say will come out more spontaneously and honestly than if you are thinking of numerous readers. Before starting the letter rehearse in our mind that you are going to tell; something interesting, your story. But don’t rehearse too much, the story will develop as you go along, especially if you write to a special friend, man or woman, to make them smile or laugh or cry, or anything you like so long as you know it will interest. Remember not to think of the reading public, it will put you off.’
In the two cases where this method succeeded with first novels they did very well.It was also successful in other cases with short stories.”
The wonderful people sharing the boarding house with Mrs. Hawkins are:
Milly, her landlady. She was sixty years old and a widow of ten years from Ireland. She wouldn’t undress in front of the TV and have those eyes on her! She wouldn’t think of walking down the street or cross the road with a man, she told wonderful stories and having borne three children, thought you could not conceive a child unless you experienced an orgasm.
Then there is Wanda, a Polish refugee. She was a seamstress and worked from her room. Generous of heart, devoutly Catholic, she had many visitors in and out of her room and would never admit to a minute of happiness, her capacity for suffering was tremendous.
The young married couple, Eva and Basil were both approaching forty and childless. They were unusually quiet.
Kate Parker, a twenty-five year old district nurse, was small, dark and plump and a cockney. She had great courage and vigor and was frequently out or away on a job, but when she was home she was cleaning like mad as she had a fetish about being clean! She would often say when visiting others ‘Your room’s nice and clean’. If she didn’t, it meant that your room wasn’t clean. She detested germs!
William Todd was a medical student. He often studied to classical music.
Isobel was a young woman who had a telephone of her own so that she could ring her Daddy in Sussex every evening; it was the only way he would let her come to London to live. She spent hours on the phone to Daddy and her friends and didn’t seem to need to work.
Mrs. Hawkins co-workers at Ullswater Press publishing company were equally as delightful. Her boss, Martin York, was playing fast and loose with the companies funds and it looked like the company might not be around long and Martin might go to jail! I loved how all of these characters interacted with each other.
One of the characters was into Radionics, a new fad when this story was set. I looked it up online and I see that it is still practiced and the ‘Box‘ can still be bought! I’m sure it is a racket and scam! Mrs. Hawkins thought so too! This teaching and magic ‘Box’ plays into a bit of a sad mystery in the story. Click on the links above to read about this scam.
Just a simple little story of a group of peoples intertwining lives, but thoroughly delightful!
This book counts toward the Read Scotland challenge on Goodreads as Ms. Spark is Scottish. Only 8 so far this year for me and I signed up for 21-25! I don’t think I’m going to make it this year!