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A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark
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A Far Cry from Kensington (original 1988; edition 2000)

by Muriel Spark

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8504010,560 (3.87)163
Member:KayCliff
Title:A Far Cry from Kensington
Authors:Muriel Spark
Info:New Directions (2000), Paperback, 192 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:novel, publishing in fiction, widow

Work details

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988)

  1. 01
    Harpole and Foxberrow, General Publishers by J. L. Carr (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both novels feature publishers in fiction.
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Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
The novel is narrated by Mrs Hawkins (Agnes – sometimes, though rarely called Nancy). Thirty years in the future from the main events in the novel – Mrs Hawkins, lying sleepless in another part of London, recalls the time she was a publisher’s assistant in the mid-1950s. Rationing is still in place, and Mrs Hawkins a young war widow goes to live in a rooming house in Kensington. Here live an odd set of characters, they move in and out of each other’s lives and each other’s rooms, it is largely a happy, harmonious household, presided over by kindly Irish landlady Milly. There are the Carlin’s a quiet, middle-aged couple, a young district nurse, Kate, young secretary Isobel; fresh from the countryside who every day checks in by phone with her daddy – medical student William and the most memorable, colourful character Wanda – a Polish seamstress. Milly and Mrs Hawkins crouch together on the half landing watching through the communal window into the house next door as the Cypriot couple who live there conduct a late-night row. It is a very companionable existence, but by all these people she is always called Mrs Hawkins, her large, matronly appearance giving her an air of capability.

At this period, Mrs Hawkins had begun to make her way in the publishing world. Working in offices in a Queen Anne house for Ullswater and York Press, in days when jobs in publishing are highly sought after. The firm are already in some financial trouble and their final days aren’t too far off. It is through her work here that Mrs Hawkins first comes into contact with Hector Bartlett a writer who Mrs Hawkins scathingly labels a ‘pisseur de copie’ meaning that he urinates dreadful prose. It is a phrase she returns to time and again – one which doesn’t always go down very well with others. It is as if she can’t help herself – for the repetition is rather overdone and starts to pall, and as Hector is involved with successful novelist Emma Loy who is very influential in the publishing world, Mrs Hawkins’ days are numbered at Ullswater and York. Mrs Hawkins is really very unpleasant to Hector – but quite frankly he deserves it – I liked Mrs Hawkins, though, from other reviews I have seen, perhaps not all readers do.

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God.”

The satirical portrait of the London publishing scene is brilliant, jobs in the industry seen practically as the holy grail of a professional life. Though it is Milly’s rooming house and the peculiar mystery surrounding the anonymous letter sent to Wanda that makes this novel so good. Wanda reacts to the letter with hysterical wailings, and her terror at the implied threat from ‘the organisation’ who accuse her of tax evasion.

“I took Wanda up a cup of tea at about five o’clock. She was awake and crying. She had got right into bed and unloosed her hair. It was the first time I had seen her with this quantity of natural corn-coloured hair about her face and shoulders. She made a very impressive sight. It occurred to me she might well have a lover, or at least an admirer, someone who courted her and who had a rival, a rejected vindictive somebody, or a jealous woman whose man Wanda had attracted. Perhaps we don’t observe each other well enough, I thought. Seeing a sex-potential, I could see the range of suspects was vastly increased. But I didn’t like to say, right away, ‘Wanda do you know of any man, woman, who could be sentimentally roused for you? – I didn’t say this because at that moment she would certainly have exploded with indignation. The image she showed to the world was that of a church-going seamstress and dedicated widow.”

The whole house become involved in Wanda’s distress, inevitably the residents looking to one another in the search for a culprit. Who could be responsible for such cruelty? The story of Wanda takes a rather darker turn than I had expected, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised – I’m beginning to see, Muriel Spark doesn’t do conventional narratives. There is another peculiar sub-plot involving ‘the box’ a mysterious instrument, said to have incredible healing properties produced through radionics, did people in the 1950s believe in a such things? – I don’t know.

I enjoyed A Far Cry from Kensington as much as The Driver’s Seat, they are quite different novels. Compelling with vibrant characters and a wonderfully quirky narrator – it is actually really entertaining. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | May 29, 2017 |
Don't be deceived by its light, droll humour, the novel is actually a subtle study of relationships between housemates, lovers, enemies and workmates - categories which overlaps more often than you'd think -, with liberal doses of Life Lessons dispensed by the matronly narrator. You know a book would be good when it starts off all Proust-esque with reflections on sleeping. The overall tone and plot reminds me of Tey's Miss Pym Disposes with its small community of characters creating intrigue for the connoisseur of human follies, the protagonist. It is written exactly as Mrs Hawkins advised, like a personal letter to a dear friend. My favourite aspect of the book is its predominantly female cast, they are independent and capable, and if they're coupled, it's mostly as an afterthought but it does not define them. The development of the driving mystery did not feel organic, but as a vehicle for Hawkins' antagonism towards Hector and no-nonsense interactions with others, it was a small flaw to forgive. Recommended for fans of somewhat-quirky character studies with a hint of murderous evil. ( )
1 vote kitzyl | Oct 30, 2016 |
3.5 rounded down only cause 4 stars would be misleading. Though I enjoy Spark's writing,I found this book not as deep as _The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie_. ( )
  Sareene | Oct 22, 2016 |
(Fiction, Vintage, British)

The narrator of this book lived in a boarding house in Kensington in the 1950s and recounts the mild adventures of her fellow boarders. As usual, the narrator is a key, but that fact is obscured until the end. This makes it sound as if I didn’t like this book, but I did – a great deal. Spark is a smooth delight at any time.

Read this if: you’ve just finished a book you had to work really hard at and you need a ‘palate-cleanser’; or, obviously, you enjoy vintage English comedies. 4 stars ( )
  ParadisePorch | Jul 1, 2016 |
Spark perfectly captures the atmosphere of 1950s London and the publishing business in this story. It's a comedy of a sort, yet combined with tragedy in a clever way. The text is conversational, as if Mrs Hawkins, an editor with a publishing house, is telling her story personally. The style keeps the reader involved in the matter and in each of the characters from the Kensington rooming house where she lives. The story mostly revolves around a hack author who becomes a thorn in the flesh of Mrs Hawkins who dubs him a pisseur de copie, to his face no less, thus unleashing a series of events that no one anticipated. Spark tied up the plot very nicely, leaving no loose ends - well maybe one, but that one is up to the reader to decide. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote VivienneR | Jun 21, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Spark, Murielprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Allisio, AnnaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Andreasen, Mogens WenzelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bachmann, ÞórdísTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bayer, OttoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bron, EleanorNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dilé, LéoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dimitriu-Sora, IleanaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Juan, Maribel deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ramos, WandaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Singer, MosheTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Smith, AliIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence.
What do we do with our lives? (Introduction)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
When Mrs Hawkins tells Hector Bartlett he is a "pisseur de copie, that he 'urinates frightful prose', little does she realise the repercussions. Holding that 'no life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest' she refuses to retract her judgement and, as Bartlett has friends in high places, this costs her not one, but two much-sought-after jobs in publishing.
Now, years older, successful and, happily, a far cry from Kensington, Mrs Hawkins looks back over the dark days that followed, in which she was embroiled in a mystery involving anonymous letters, quack remedies, blackmail and suicide.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0811214575, Paperback)

Set on the crazier fringes of 1950s literary London, A Far Cry from Kensington is a delight, hilariously portraying love, fraud, death, evil, and transformation.

Mrs. Hawkins, the majestic narrator of A Far Cry from Kensington, takes us well in hand, and leads us back to her threadbare years in postwar London. There, as a fat and much admired young war widow, she spent her days working for a mad, near-bankrupt publisher ("of very good books") and her nights dispensing advice at her small South Kensington rooming-house. At work and at home Mrs. Hawkins soon uncovered evil: shady literary doings and a deadly enemy; anonymous letters, blackmail, and suicide. With aplomb, however, Mrs. Hawkins confidently set about putting things to order, little imagining the mayhem which would ensue. Now decades older, thin, successful, and delighted with life in Italy -- quite a far cry from Kensington -- Mrs. Hawkins looks back to all those dark doings, and recounts how her own life changed forever. She still, however, loves to give advice: "It's easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half....I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book." A masterwork by "Britain's greatest living novelist" (Sunday Telegraph, 1999), A Far Cry from Kensington has been hailed as "outstanding" (The Observer) and "wickedly and adroitly executed" (The New York Times). "Far Cry is, among other things, a comedy that holds a tragedy as an egg-cup holds an egg" (Philadelphia Inquirer).

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:16 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"Mrs. Hawkins takes us in hand and leads us back to her threadbare years in postwar London. There, as a fat but much admired young war widow, she spent her days working for a mad, near-bankrupt publisher and her evenings dispensing advice at her small South Kensington rooming house. At work and at home, Mrs. Hawkins soon uncovered evil: shady literary doings and a deadly enemy; anonymous letters, blackmail, and suicide. With aplomb, however, Mrs. Hawkins confidently set about putting things to order, little imagining the mayhem which would ensue." "Now decades older, thin, successful, and delighted with life in Italy - a far cry from Kensington - Mrs. Hawkins looks back to those dark doings, and recounts how her own life changed forever. She still, however, loves to give advice: "It's easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half ... I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book.""--Jacket.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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