Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Far Cry from Kensington, by Muriel Spark

World War II has been over for nearly ten years, and London is still recovering. Through the eyes of her protagonist, Muriel Spark shows us the charming offices of the small publishing company where she works. We also see holes where buildings have been bombed out, and other evidence of the recent war.

Mrs. Hawkins, our protagonist, is 28 years old. She is a competent and respected editor in the small and somewhat claustrophobic London publishing industry. Long since widowed from a brief wartime marriage, she enjoys her job. Her co-workers rely on her for help and advice. Even as the first-person narrator, she can't resist throwing in periodic bits of advice: for those who wish to slim, for those seeking jobs, and so on.

Sure of her editorial judgment, she is annoyed when an aspiring young man wants her help to get an introduction to her boss. When he waylays her in Green Park as she walks toward her workplace, she first tries politely to extricate herself, explaining that she cannot arrange for him to meet the publisher who owns her firm.

When he persists, she uses an impolite French epithet to describe him, calling him a pisseur de copie first silently to herself, and then aloud. With disastrous consequences, as it turns out. Hector has connections. His lover is the well-known author who demands that Mrs. Hawkins retract or be fired. Though her employers do not want to lose her, she refuses to tone down her judgment; on the contrary, she repeats her original insult. She has to go.

The cloud of unemployment, however, has a silver lining. At the boarding house, fellow boarders get into various scrapes and Mrs. Hawkins works away with her chum, the Irish landlady, to get things sorted out, especially for an excitable Polish seamstress who lives in the building. In her capacity as adviser, Mrs. Hawkins is asked out to supper by the wealthy father of a young tenant; his belief is that she can influence his young daughter positively.

Through the action of this novel, Mrs. Hawkins is transformed. From an overweight and officious young agony aunt, she grows into a slender and fashionable woman, with improving work and romantic prospects. However, her journey from Mrs. Hawkins to Nancy comes at a cost. And periodically, she backslides, resorting once again to dishing out advice.

Much later, when she meets her former nemesis, he barely recognizes her. Years have passed; her life is a far cry from that of Mrs. Hawkins of Kensington. The post-war London life so brilliantly portrayed by Muriel Spark is a far cry from life in London today. The book is a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era.

The first American edition of A Far Cry From Kensington was published by Houghton Mifflin in 1988, and the book was reissued by New Directions in 2000.

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