Spark, Muriel. A Far Cry from Kensington.

Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988.

Muriel Spark isn’t much read these days, despite numerous awards and an OBE, except perhaps for her most famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. That’s a shame, because Spark is a master of the character portrait. In fact, plots take a back seat in her stories to the people who inhabit them.

The focus this time is the narrator, who, until late in the book, is known to all only as “Mrs. Hawkins.” She’s a large, strong woman — fat, in fact, as she openly notes — and is regarded, sometimes to her annoyance, as reliable, trustworthy, competent, and full of useful advice on practically everything. It’s 1954, London is still suffering from the lingering effects of the war nearly a decade later, and Mrs. Hawkins, a 29-year-old war widow, is employed as an editor (in everything but title) by a publishing firm, the Ullswater Press. The business is on its last financial legs for a number of reasons, but the people who work there are all interesting types. Mrs. Hawkins lives in an attic room in a boarding house and has become good friends with Milly, the owner, who is also preeminent adviser to the other residents.

And then into her life comes Hector Bartlett, a smarmy, manipulative, lying literary pretender who’s not above committing fraud to get himself published. Mrs. Hawkins, who easily sees through him, can’t stand him even a little bit. Pressed beyond endurance, she publicly calls him a pisseur de copie — a journalistic urinator. But Bartlett has a sponsor, a very successful and highly regarded woman novelist, and when Mrs. Hawkins repeats her judgment in a staff meeting, she loses her job. Ullswater isn’t the only publishing house around and Mrs. Hawkins bounces back, but the London literary scene is a small one and she’s destined to run into Bartlett and his patron again, and to suffer from the encounter. Others of her acquaintance will suffer much more — but no one wins out over Mrs. Hawkins, not in the long run.

I think this is one of the best of Spark’s twenty-odd novels, filled with puckish humor and wry observations and writing of very, very high quality.

Published in: on 12 April 2014 at 7:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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