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Book Review : More Rousing Humor and Healing From Muriel Spark

Times Book Critic

A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark (Houghton Mifflin; $17.95)

We usually think of retreat as a matter of pulling back into ourselves at the prospect of injury, or as its result. Muriel Spark’s funny and feathery new novel--they are talon feathers--is the story of a wounded woman who retreats into public life. It takes a long healing for her to advance into privacy.

Stood upon our heads, without guarantees, and liable at any moment to have the subject changed, we are in prime Spark territory. The narrator and heroine of “A Far Cry From Kensington,” the initially stout and public-spirited Nancy Hawkins, advises us at one point about the best way to write a novel:

Invent a friend and tell a story to beguile that friend. The quality of the story will depend upon the art with which the friend is imagined. Spark imagines us, I expect, as a friend who favors tricky games, precarious rooftop expeditions for a clearer view, and soup after dessert.

Shining Bits of Advice

“Mrs. Hawkins,” as she is known at the beginning of the book--only later will she become “Nancy"--tosses out other shining bits of advice as she tells us about her period of healing, 30 years before, in an eccentric rooming house in London’s South Kensington, and in a set of even more eccentric publishing houses in the West End.

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Losing weight, for example, is simple. Eat half of everything you’re served. Will power may seem a problem, but it isn’t. “You should think of will power as something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future and the past. At one moment, you have decided to do or refrain from an act and the next moment you have already done or refrained.”

Concentration, for a writer, is also simple. Get a cat. It will sit quietly under the desk lamp. It “will make the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost.”

Or job hunting. Don’t just rely on ads or connections. Tell a policeman, a waiter, whomever you meet on the train. People believe in destiny, she insists, and are much happier finding the right person by chance. They like to be able to say: “I just happened to be looking for an accountant and do you know, I got a first-class fellow through the barman at the Goat.”

Or, “It is my advice to anyone getting married, that they should first see the other partner when drunk.”

All of these offerings are attached to the story. Partway through, Hawkins goes on a transforming diet. A blocked author she deals with gets his book done, and the jacket shows him sitting at his desk with a cat under the lamp. She finds jobs for friends and herself following the rule of peripheral mention.

The one about drinking, though, is the ladder down to the root cellar. It is the darkness under the bright comedy in which Hawkins’ story is cast.

“A Far Cry” starts off as a joyous gallery of wackiness, recalled by a woman who was 29 at the time. The narrator’s account of the Kensington rooming house is one of those comedies of eccentricity that the English do with such satisfaction.

Outside are the publishing houses where Hawkins works as an editor. Their oddities are more lordly. One proprietor favors books by former schoolmates or Army companions, and goes to jail for fraud. Another chooses his senior editors on the basis of personal infirmity. Hawkins is hired because she is fat.

Which brings us to the retrospective voice of the narrator and protagonist. It refines what might be standard if exceedingly funny English comedy. There is lightness in it, and airy leaps of association; but there are also sudden urgencies here and there, and unexpected tension.

Air of Reliability

In fact, Hawkins is telling a hard story blithely. She repeatedly stresses the air of reliability she gave off at 29, the role she played as consoler, adviser and as a person you would turn to. She stresses her long widowhood--her husband was killed in the war 10 years before when she was 19--and her fatness.

The pain, we learn eventually, was not that her husband died after a few weeks of marriage. It was that on his last leave, he got drunk, beat her savagely, went back to duty and was killed. And that, accordingly, she had no way of thinking about what had happened to her, or of giving it meaning.

To love, to fight; these are the signs of health that Spark brings out of her funniest and most rousing novel of recent years. They amount to being yourself.


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