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?

Productivity Hacks and Where to Find Them

The search continues for productivity hacks for busy-brained people who have too much to do…

If you have always had a busy brain like me, distractable and often day-dreamy, you will probably have spent years looking for systems that help you “get things done” or “be more productive”. You probably have to work twice as hard to put the any suggestions in place – I can tell you with the added bonus of brain fog for the last 18 months, I have hard-won experience about just how tough this can be. Over the years, I have developed an insatiable appetite for the self-help books that help and here are the productivity hacks that have actually helped:

Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

This book is such a a classic though I haven’t read it since I was an impressionable teenager some of the habits have stuck. It’s definitely quite a dense management-speak book that couldn’t solve all my problems but there is one hack that has stuck – the importance matrix. You probably know to always write a to do list: mine has too many things on it and some on there that “should have dones” that haunt me every time I look at this.

But I am having a tough time, I sit and make a matrix. In essence what Covey teaches you to do is to rank the most important and time-consuming tasks so that you get your priorities done first. When my brain is fuzzed with too many tasks to do, I still use this method after all these years to focus in on what’s got to get done first.

Graham Allcott: How to Be a Productivity Ninja

One book I think that runs alongside Covey’s book which helps you prioritise tasks is The Productivity Ninja. The section that stayed with me was both about knowing your best times of day but most importantly protect your attention. This means working in focus mode on my phone or putting a timer on to work solidly for that time. Now as you will know getting precious time alone with enough energy is my constant battle, but knowing that mornings are the times I can concentrate best and that I work well with instrumental music on helps me keep on task.

Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism was a book I have found quite recently. It actually seems more of a philosophy – a minimalism for your inner life and I enjoyed this introductory course on Skillshare (link not affiliated). Having thought through a lot of advice, it seems like he is asking you to design your life and I will share more on the project I am working on as part of the course in a future post. The general idea is to really identify not just your priorities but areas of your lives where you can improve so you are always moving in the direction. As part of this work, you really have to identify your boundaries and so that you really are focusing on what is essential.

Manoush Zomodori: Bored and Brilliant: How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything

I have written my account of trying a bored and brilliant project before. The ideas that have really stuck is taking breaks from our phone. She forces you to go on your commute without your phone or go for a quiet walk. What a revelation that we can cope without the modern crutch. The most difficult part is you might feel weird being the only one looking around, not down at your phone. As well as giving you a break, it allows your restless brain to work and often ideas will form. It may seem the opposite of being productive to let your mind wander, but our problem solving mechanism works hard for us and although I do still often have the crutch of my phone, I am much more aware of taking time without it.

Nir Eyal, Indistractable: How to Control your Attention and Choose your Life

The final book I have found helpful has some startling evidence to share about the impact of social media and the instant access of information on our attention. The message I take from this book, apart from making me horrified about my screen time, is that we need to be aware when we are trying to escape.

Most people don’t want to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality

Nir Eyal, Indistractable

For me I acknowledge I need these breaks, often into fiction or even writing itself. The hard disciplined work of being indistractable is not easy but will undoubtedly improve your productivity.

The fatigue recovery that I have had to undertake has taught me a lot about just how much energy focusing and using our brain takes. I am not yet at my full capacity but so much improved now I can see how important it is to be aware of how we spend our attention. As well as using these hacks, I would say we also need to balance. We need these hard and focused moments to work effectively in the time we have but also those things that give us a break.

Have you read any productivity books you think will help?

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?”

Scary Reads for Spooky Season

Halloween has inevitably drawn me to some really scary novels, here are reads I would definitely recommend

I make no secret that I love gothic fiction and as Halloween hits I thought I should share the scary reads I have devoured this month

The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell The novel opens in an asylum (never not creepy) as the good doctor tries to coach the silent Elsie to tell her story. We unravel the mysteries of her past through her recollections. Full of some great elements of gothic fiction: a haunted house, the manorial pile left by her late husband, his mysterious death and spooky “companions” (wooden paintings) that seem to have a life of their own. As she writes her tale we learn about Elsie’s dark past as well as the disturbing history of the manor house. This book kept me gripped and I enjoyed how the histories were woven together in her narrative. This novel would be great for fans of Alias Grace. Though not based on real life like Margaret Attwood’s work, Purcell has a keen delight in historical detail which is satisfying in the same way.

The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond I listened to this novel this month and it was a shocking and at times harrowing read. Currently available on Audible Plus I was intrigued by the mystery of the Pact. Jake and Alice have only recently married and have received a strange gift: an opportunity to join The Pact, a secretive organisation that will help them uphold the sanctity of their marriage. Although I did have some reservations about the premise, not least that Alice is a lawyer but seems to sign up to the organisation without much forethought, I was left pretty shocked by the unfolding action. Their perfect life gradually unravels and leaves them very much in danger within the organisation, much more dangerous than it sounds. This will be a great read if you have been as obsessed learning about the NXIVM cult. I recommend Escaping NXIVM podcast too if you haven’t yet come across this real life horror story.

The Binding by Bridget Collins I am part way through this novel. Emmett has been weakened by a period of madness and is sent away from his family farm,  called upon instead by the mysterious binder to come and learn her trade. We know very little about the importance of binding books only that there is something dark and secretive about owing books in the world Collins has created. The magic the binder appears to perform has angered local residents and as I continue this book, it seems there may be a witch hunt coming. The dark fantasy and power of books reninded me of Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver and will be another great read for fellow gothic fiction fans.

What scary reads have you read this month?