Leading by voice: A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark
ABHA ELI PHOBOO
Another writer might’ve chosen the familiar path, front-loaded the story and centered it on sensationalism. But not so with Muriel Spark: She knows where her story is and why it’s a story.
A Far Cry from Kensington, her eighteenth novel, is fiercely loyal to its characters. The reader knows right from the start that this is an artist who knows what she’s doing and gives in to the voice. The book reaffirms that respect often bestowed to her as a writer, one of the 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945.
It’s not that there’s nothing sensational that happens in the book. There are plenty. The novel is set in 1954, which were trying times of poverty and rationing in London. And if Spark had wanted, she could’ve mined it with a structure that followed one of a genre mystery thriller. There’s blackmail, dubious science, satire, violence, and suicide. But A Far Cry from Kensington isn’t about these things, it’s not about who did what, but rather about how these things affected the people caught in that particular time, and the one particular person who set out to tell the story – Mrs. Agnes Hawkins.
Time in the book is mostly perceived from the future of the central events, and thus the story we get is filtered through Mrs. Hawkins’ perspective. Except when we get the story, Mrs. Hawkins isn’t Mrs. Hawkins anymore; she’s Nancy, a trimmer, younger-looking version of Mrs. Hawkins. She isn’t in England anymore but in Italy. And she’s able to look back on those times with an understanding of the people back in Kensington, of the events that took place, and of who she used to be.
When Nancy was Mrs. Hawkins, she was fat, “capable” and someone everybody confided in. She dispensed of advice freely and she called things as she saw them. Her description of herself establishes this:
“There was something about me, Mrs. Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable.”
That’s one of the enduring things about the voice, and even though Mrs. Hawkins might’ve undergone physical change, the remnants of her are strongly evoked throughout the narrative. Mrs. Hawkins, even as Nancy, still gives advice, even to the reader:
“It is 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.”
This moment in the narrative could easily have been one of those jolting moments when the author draws attention to herself as the author and calls the readers’ awareness to their reading selves. But because even this is in character with Mrs. Hawkins’ voice, it becomes a moment of quirky humor, and stamps upon us the element of easy assurance which prompts people to confide in her.
Mrs. Hawkins is a twenty-eight year old war widow who lives in a boarding house in Kensington with a Polish dressmaker, a medical student, a married couple, a district nurse. She’s an editor for a press going out of business, and in the event meets Hector Bartlett, one of those hangers-on who try to wheedle their way into publishing. Mrs. Hawkins calls him pisseur de copie, a French phrase for a hack writer who urinates bad prose. She calls him so to his face and loses her job. But she continues to call him so and loses yet another job. Still, she doesn’t stop. By this time, Mrs. Hawkins has decided to eat only half and lose weight. She’s already changing physically, and all around her things start taking drastic turns.
You have to read Spark to understand the texture of her language, the intention of her prose in this particular novel. As Mrs. Hawkins, the editor, she says:
“You are writing a letter to a friend…And this is a dear and close friend, real – or better – invented in your mind like a fixation. Write privately, not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you.”
The advice makes for a good writing prompt, and it’s one that Spark follows. This is certainly a book that makes you think, yes, about writing and stories, but it also leaves you as a reader well-entertained.