Posts Tagged ‘Muriel Spark’

A couple of years ago I spied The Comforters at a coffee and book shop in Maine and remembered how much I liked A Far Cry from KensingtonWhen I was looking for a quick read for the holiday season, I saw it on my shelf and decided to give this book, Muriel Spark‘s debut novel, a read. It was just the thing for this busy time, short and satisfying.

It was interesting to read so recently after The Life You Save May Be Your Own because Spark was a Catholic convert and Catholicism features heavily in The Comforters. It’s the story of Caroline, a writer working on book about the novel form. She’s a recent convert and has decided to put her relationship with Laurence, a BBC football commentator and heir to a canned fig company, on hold until he returns to the faith, although they remain friends.

When the novel opens, Laurence writes to Caroline from his grandmother Louisa’s home to tell her he thinks Louisa is in a gang. Caroline is on a retreat and is driven away by the odious Mrs. Hogg, a former servant for Laurence’s family and a very nosy and unpleasant woman. Mrs. Hogg decides to read the letter, rather than just forwarding it on to Caroline. In the mean time, Laurence and Caroline try to get to the bottom of what Louisa is up to, and Caroline is visited by a ghostly narrator whose typewriter only she can hear.

Caroline, crazily enough, feels sure this means they are all in a novel. She comes to view herself as superfluous to the plot — the mystery surrounding Louisa, Mrs. Hogg, Mrs. Hogg’s estranged husband Mr. Hogarth, and their crippled son, Andrew, as well as a friend of Caroline’s and Laurences, known as the Baron, Laurence’s mother Helena, and his Uncle Ernest, who, in good English novel fashion, happens to be in business with Caroline’s college friend Eleanor, who has been involved romantically with both the Baron and Mr. Hogarth. But in the end it turns out, Caroline is really key to the whole story.

Confused? I was from time to time, but it all became clearer as I took more time to read — it’s not a book you can pick up for a few pages a night before bed, unless you want to spend time backtracking to figure out who is doing what and how they know each other again. However, once I gave it proper attention, The Comforters was hilarious in a dry, and pretty dark way — there is a crime at the center of the story, plus some injuries, a death, and at least one of the characters may or may not be involved in diabolism (I had to look it up, too — devil worship). The supernatural aspect worked for me because it seems like a nod to the creative process — why wouldn’t writers possibly be visited by voices, and aren’t they, even if most of the time they don’t literally hear them out loud?

A delightful read, a little wacky and fun but also a novel that talks addresses women’s roles in society, creativity, religious practices, morality, and relationships. A book club could have fun with this one.


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Longtime readers of bookconscious know I’m an Anglophile. I’ve loved English novels since childhood, and when I visited (Twice! Thanks, Mom & Dad) during the winter mini-term in college with a favorite English professor, it felt like all the literature I’d absorbed came alive as we traveled and talked about books.

But despite reading a lot of British literature, I still come across writers I haven’t yet read. Over the weekend I read A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark. Spark is one of those authors I’ve always intended to read. I picked up this book because Maria Popova at Brain Pickings quoted from the book in October in a post titled “How a Cat Boosts Your Creativity.”

Spark is considered one of the best British writers of the 20th century but her books are “slim” (according to her New York Times obit) and for some reason not widely taught, at least not in the United States. Perhaps because her sharp humor and her matter-of-fact illumination of moral issues is so subtle?

Anyway I’m glad to have finally read her. A Far Cry From Kensington features the indomitable Mrs. Hawkins, a smart book editor known for her good advice. She’s a loyal friend and no nonsense woman. In her postwar London boarding house, we meet her Irish landlady and a zany cast of neighbors, and in her various publishing jobs we see Mrs. Hawkins capably handling nutty bosses, fragile co-workers, and obnoxious authors. She’s kind and empathetic to those who are suffering and firmly critical of those who are mean or even evil. I adored her. And I want to go on and read more Spark.

Ruth Hamilton is a writer from Bolton in northern England, where Teen the Elder spent his gap year. I was using a “reader’s advisory” tool at the library called NovelList, helping a patron find books like one she’d just finished, when Parallel Life came up. I noticed it was set in Bolton and made a note to look for it later. Hamilton reminds me a bit of Maeve Binchy — this novel has a large and varied cast of characters, from different walks of life, facing issues straight out of the headlines.

The women in Hamilton’s novel stick together. When Lisa Compton-Milne ends an affair with a dicey alarms installer, his wife, Annie Nuttall, confronts her in a posh restaurant. A few pages later they are becoming friends, and by the end of the book Annie and her children are practically part of Lisa’s family. Harriet, twenty-one when the book opens and Lisa’s elder child, is holding her dysfunctional family together, and her grandmother, who has MS, rules over all of them from her attic suite. By the end of the book these two tough ladies have settled into new understandings and purpose as well.

I got a kick out of the strong women, the plot twists, and the setting, and this was a nice read over the busy Thanksgiving weekend. Some parts of the story were a bit repetitive, but overall it was interesting and kept me turning pages. For me the references to Bolton were especially interesting, since I recognized places my son had visited.

Next up I have books checked out by two American authors I’d been intending to read: Lauren Groff and Ben Ryder Howe.

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