Review: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark’s novel about post-war Britain packs a comic punch all these years later; both urbane and absurd at the same time.

My advice to any woman who earns the reputation of being capable, is not to demonstrate her ability too much

Mrs Hawkins, the indomitable protagonist of Muriel Spark’s novel “A Far Cry from Kensington” remembers life in her shabby bedsit in 1950s Kensington. The war widow has settled in her comfortable plumpness as a capable advisor of people around her. This comic cast constantly call her on the hallway telephone or get them to join them in their upscale dining to prime her for information, ask for his help. She recalls the absurd characters living alongside her as well as the vivid people she works alongside the publishing industry.

I particularly enjoyed that the gloss of the publishing world is written with a comic tilt of an eyebrow. Surrounded by “egocentricity” and vanity projects, Agnes Hawkins continues to work stolidly through her duties, often sneering at her odd or crooked employers. As a veteran of the literary publishing industry, Spark surely writes with a knowing wit about those who dominated the apparently glamorous industry. Mrs Hawkins quips about her first crooked employer “Publishers…attempt to make friends with their authors; Martin York tried to make authors of his friends. ” I came away from this novel thinking that it was gently satirical of a world she knew well. I found a great article that explains more about her connections to London and the literary world on this site.

Perhaps better suited to the particularly viscious world of post-war publishing was Mr Lederer’s flighty daughter Isobel. She fancies working in the “classier” world of publishing, perhaps like the wannabe influencer of today she imagines it will be easy and glamorous. Mrs Hawkins arch nemesis Hector makes the point even more strongly. Agnes gets in serious trouble for several times calling him the “pisseur de copie” – the phony. But somehow it is he who manags to rise through his devious coat-tailing of talent.

As well as the commentary on the publishing industry, Mrs Hawkins also has advice for writers. Not only does she suggest that you should write as if you are writing a long letter to a friend but also you should get a cat so you have something to focus on. I do feel the author’s presence throughout and rather like reading Austen, we enjoy being let in on the joke. Though far more absurd, Spark certainly has a marvellous narrative voice to – we are acutely with her throughout – I rather enjoyed the letter.

Muriel Spark’s novels have a brevity and sharpness that make them the absolute perfect thing to get out of a reading slump. I have struggled to put pen to paper and to make my way through physical books for a while but I couldn’t stop reading “A Far Cry for Kensington”. It helps of course that central to the novel is a mystery. Her neighbour unravelling offered a dark twist that I will not spoil. Although in many ways the novel is a series of vignettes, this little mystery that starts with a sinister letter is enough to drive the plot.

I would highly recommend this book as a good one to consume in one weekend like I did.

Is there another short book I should get my teeth into this weekend?

Essentialism and real life

How I am working on my novel the Essentialism way

A few weeks ago I took Greg McKeown’s course on Simple Productivity: How to accomplish more with less on Skillshare all about Essentialism and Productivity. I was already aware of the book from the excellent and always funny “Go Help Yourself” podcast which I would really recommend if you can’t always be bothered to read the book but want the ideas! Your main goal of the course is to identify the thing in your life are you not making an “essential” For me that is working on my novel. Once you have identified this, then you will need to think what makes it so essential for you. I took time to review the book I have written and – though it’s a right mess – I still believe in the story I am trying to tell.

Greg McKeown Essentialism:The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

After this philosphising about your purpose, you have to get down to practicalities. As you know I am always looking for ways to be more productive as I recently shared my reading list. Then you have to create strong boundaries around this essential thing. And finally you have to “routinize” the work so it actually happens. All of this is easier said than done!

I chose writing as my thing I don’t do enough of, you may have guessed that aside from faithfully writing morning pages, there are days the pen doesn’t hit the page. That has to change but in addition to McKeown’s advice I needed to consider my pacing approach. I am lucky enough to have help from a Fatigue Coach, Pamela Rose and she very wisely suggests you build up slowly within your tolerance and live carefully once you have established a baseline of energy. Her approach actually makes sense for lots of us, not just people with a fatigue condition. What I am suggesting is you shouldn’t rush straight into saying I’ll write an hour a day or a 1500 words a day or whatever other rule you have read somewhere. You can build up to this if that works for your life.

Looking at my current capability I have made a plan to build up over the next few months. I am still struggling with screens as they are more tiring for me with my foggy brain so instead I have been writing by hand. For the last few weeks I have been attempting to write two days a week for thirty minutes then having a type up day each Sunday. This practical focus has been achievable and the idea is to keep building on the momentum of the regular writing. I am going to attempt to lengthen one session this week before I add another day in. This way I have stayed building on my progress but not gone too far.

I think with all good self-help books we have to take the best parts. The advice can start to diffuse into our lives so that we establish any changes within our own capabilities. I think it is important to make our creativity an essential, to recognise artistic expression is more than just a hobby. But also to make realistic demands on our self. As ever real life can get in the way.

REVIEW: Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I loved this dark, postcolonial horror story.

After her family receives an odd letter, Noemi goes to rescue her cousin Catalina from whatever is disturbing her mind at High Place. From the book description…

Noemi’s chic gowns and perfect lipstick are more suited to cocktail parties than amateur sleuthing, but she immediately heads to High Place, a remote mansion in the Mexican countryside, determined to discover what is affecting her cousin.”

The gothic details of High Place caught me from the beginning. The old English family, the Doyles, use candles and oil lamps and only sparringly. The effect of the light and the details of the dusty mansion added to the creepy setting. As she describes the chapter three, the very house feels suffocating from the moment we see it in the lamp light that “… painted the velvet curtains green. In one or other of her stories Catalina had told her the Kublai Khan executed his enemies by smothering them with velvet pillows so there would be no blood. She thought this house, with all its fabrics and rugs and tassels, could smother a whole army.”

The setting informs us of the postcolonial tensions of this usurping English family, coming and infecting the land. Their wealth reliant on silver mines which have closed: the faded grandeur reminding me of Derek Walcott’s Ruins of a Great House. But it also serves the central mystery of the story as Noemi and Catalina both become more haunted by this house. It’s a clever setting that is both exactly what you might expect in a gothic tale but also highly unexpected as we get the final horror-filled reveal in the third act.

The descriptions in this novel are so brilliant. We, like Noemi, luxuriate in her clothes and feel the tensions between the family members whose stiff Victorian manners seem so out of step with this thoroughly modern Mexican woman.

I don’t enjoy books with sexual violence and the tensions between her and her cousins husband, Virgil, as well as his snake-like father Howard, are extremely uncomfortable. However I will say that the way these men try and exert their power serves the story so though it is uncomfortable, it becomes important. It is also part of Noemi finding her own agency as she fights back from the force taking over her mind and body.

Even more uncomfortable perhaps, though again really important to the story, is the racial profiling that Virgil and Howard use to talk about Noemi in particular. At dinner on her second night, Howard Doyle leers over her, just touching her hair as if to appraise her. His books too show her his fascination with what he calls “aesthetics” but what is really eugenics. The true-to-life white supremacist position the family seems to take, combines so well with the fantasy elements of the novel. We can both be horrified both by the colonial history and the dark twists of the novel.

I was so pleased to discover that Moreno-Garcia has written many other books: is there any other pleasure than finding a new author that you love! This book will be great for fans of Du Maurier’s Rebecca but also have a horror twist which reminded me of another book I reviewed, Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver.

Do let me know if you have any other recommendations of great gothic reads!

REVIEW: Bunny by Mona Awad

The perfect (cotton) tale for anyone who has taken a writing class

Bunny by Mona Awad was one of those books I started thinking it was about University. A book for anyone who has ever braved a writing class and in a sense relatable, funny. I didn’t realise it was about to go to such a weird and dark place. The book it most reminds me of is The Secret History. Fans of Donna Tartt’s tour de force will definitely enjoy the fantastical elements of this novel and I do still feel like it will be a great read for anyone who is fan of this book but this turns out to be something quite different. As the synopsis says…

“Samantha Heather Mackey couldn’t be more of an outsider in her small, highly selective MFA program at New England’s Warren University. A scholarship student who prefers the company of her dark imagination to that of most people, she is utterly repelled by the rest of her fiction writing cohort–a clique of unbearably twee rich girls who call each other “Bunny,” and seem to move and speak as one.

But everything changes when Samantha receives an invitation to the Bunnies’ fabled “Smut Salon,” and finds herself inexplicably drawn to their front door–ditching her only friend, Ava, in the process…”

The small exclusive college is something I can relate to, having spend a wonderful year abroad at the beautiful Mount Holyoke. This sort of book suckers me in like my previous review of The Borrower, the New England connection always gets me interested! But really book doesn’t twist to interesting until after Samantha has attended her first Salon. She is scathing as she enters into their exclusive set. ” Their cheeks are plump and pink and shining like they’ve been eating too much sugar, but actually it’s Gossip Glow, the flushed look that comes from throwing another woman under the bus.”

It seems like a the book will turn into Mean Girls as she dumps her edgy friend Ava for the women who simper at each other, calling each other bunnies. In fact, Samantha’s perspective on all the women has this misogynistic tilt: categorising each into their type very rarely naming them . One woman so personifies a cupcake that she is consistently described as edible. But again the gothic girl, the preppy girl: these stereotypes seem as recognisable as the teen movies which apparently insists everyone only has one identity.

If you do find these tropes a bit frustrating, it’s worth sticking with the novel as it gets a lot more sci-fi in act two. As the group works towards their final projects for their MFA, they join forces to create the perfect work. The witchcraft or science fiction takes over at this point as they develop their stories (without giving away spoilers). Their experiments are horrific and we are so angry with this unlikeable group of women trying to craft their work that we are cheering for Samantha to return to her true friends.

Trying not to be scared, image on Flickr

But as we swoop into the final act, the shocks speed up as we try and figure the truth of Samantha’s role. We want to see her succeed, create her amazing work that is going to beat the entitled, unbearable women. Particularly as we see them gang up on her more and more. In the end they are her conscience who tries to bring her back to reality, The Duchess reminding her: “But it’s one thing to go to the edge. It’s another thing to fall off entirely, isn’t it?”

I’m going to say what I have seen a lot of reviews I read have said: I could not fully follow these final twists and turns. I had to re-read the final twenty pages of the denouement after I had raced to the finish. But unlike others who have either called this book “weird” or hated the sexism in the book, I’m going to say this is the book I have read this year that has made me think. I need to revisit it to fully understand it, to get into how Samantha’s warped perspective skews our understanding. Just like The Secret History, the central mysteries that drive the novel, mean you have to re-read this book.

To me this beautifully written novel is clever and cunning. It tries to teach us about writing while also subverting tropes we know so well. I read the book in February and I am still thinking about it which is a mark of how haunting it is. I would recommend this book if you have been to writing class not just because it’s a fun pastiche of attending an intense writing programme but because there are lessons to be learnt.

If nothing else it teaches us all the power of editing:, “I mean, you have to kill your Darlings, remember?”

In defence of audiobooks

As an English grad, I am horrified that I hardly read a physical book this year but audiobooks have been an essential in my life this year

Earlier this year, I shared how I have started to count audiobooks as reading. It still seems wrong to say but despite the fatigue and brain fog of long covid, I have read just shy of 50 books this year. Most of them are listens rather than read and some are also re-reads. But I have now fully convinced this is the best way to really appreciate a text and I am sad I have waited so long to consume books in this way.

The main reason I want to defend the audiobook is this is the year I finally “read” Anna Karenina. Now, I have battled through most of War and Peace and knew that I liked Tolstoy’s knowing narration, grand settings but until this year, I never made it through Anna Karenina. And I must admit I had missed out. The first modern novel, obsessed with it’s own modernity, attempting to understand the psychology of it’s tragic heroes as well of of course the new age dawning with trains and the death of feudal farming, I find this a deeply fascinating novel. I did know the ending, but I was deeply shocked when I got there. The depth of my investment in the relationships and the complexity are so rewarding for the reader. When I am reading a novel twenty minutes at a time, holding all the characters in my head, switching between the town and countryside is confusing to follow, particularly when my brain is fogged. Having a voice actor peform the audiobook, we gain so much in their characterisation and can more easily follow the changes in voice and place in the novel.

Finally read Anna Karenina

It has also been an amazing way to reread books. I’ve listed before books that I think it is worth rereading. I have enjoyed the comfort of revisiting Jane Austen and the Northern Lights series by Phillip Pullman. Though I know these books so well, you pick up extra elements on each reread and this was very much part of my enjoyment of revisiting these books on audio. The performance is adding to the nuances that you pick up on as you revisit favourite places like Pemberley or characters like the villainous Mrs Coulter

A friend recently asked me how I concentrate on audiobooks as she tends to realise she has drifted off. Well this is a danger and with the relistens is matters less because you know the story but as I have managed brand new books this year too, I think I must be able to concentrate. My secret if anything is that listening to the book is the activity rather than have it on in the background. With my fatigue condition I have been bone tired enough to rest for great parts of the day. Not always thankfully but I lot of the time I have needed to give my brain a break and as I wrote before, audiobooks have formed an important part of my active resting.

So as I go forward with a bit more energy and a lot of hope, it may be that audiobooks were just the thing that got me through 2021 and ill-health. But even if I don’t get this time again to rest and “read” I will forever now advocate for audiobooks as a great way to tackle books, particularly ones that you have put off for years.

Are you an audiobook fan?