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 that 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 Far Cry from Kensington has been hailed as “outstanding” (Observer), “wickedly and adroitly executed” (New York Times), and “a comedy that holds a tragedy as an eggcup holds an egg.” (Philadelphia Inquirer).
©1988 Muriel Spark (P)2011 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“Wickedly and adroitly executed.” (The New York Times)
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When I started reading this sharply written, engrossing tragicomedy I would often pause and wonder "what is this odd book really about". The story transports the listener back to post war 1950s London--the publishing world and life in a rooming house peopled by a collection of eccentric characters.
Spark's writing is spare--but with limited carefully chosen words she is able to paint multidimensional pictures and tell a richly textured story. Coupled with Pamela Garelick's fantastic narration, I felt as though I had watched a movie rather than listened to an audiobook. The scenes were vivid and the characters and their interaction entrancing.
The commentary on the world of publishing, the witless ease people have in misreading the skills and abilities of themselves and others, and the insights into personal behavior were dryly funny. Underlying all this comedy was the mystery, the tragedy and the charlatan. Oh and yes--the translation of the oft repeated french phrase that caused so much trouble is "writer who churns out rubbish".
In the end, it all becomes clear and the story is definitely worth the time spent listening. I wonder how I missed this gem until now. The writing and narration are both top-notch and perfect.
I love the wickedly low-key humor of this book, but most of all I love the reading of Pamela Garelick. She is now my absolute favorite reader. Her voice is perfect for the book, and she gets all the intonations and moods exactly right. When she does different voices, she's just perfect. I would be thrilled if she got a lot more narration jobs.
If she was alive today, I'd be writing to thank Muriel Spark for adding a useful phrase to my repertoire: pisseur de copie. It's a phrase that gets Mrs. Hawkins (later known as Nancy) into a good deal of trouble, but she never takes it back. Mrs. Hawkins, a large-boned and hefty 28-year-old war widow, works in the world of publishing, and she lives in a boarding house full of eccentric characters, including a Polish seamstress, a pampered daddy's girl, a clever lower class medical student, and others. It's her connection to Hector Bartlett, the pisseur de copie, that shapes the novel. Mrs. Hawkins takes an immediate dislike to the pretentious would-be author, who tries repeatedly to use his 'friendship' with popular novelist Emma Loy as an entry ticket. (Nancy suspects a sexual liaison, but Emma's revelation that Hector can quote from all of her novels--wrongly--suggests something a bit more egotistical.) When tragedy strikes the boarding house community, Mrs. Hawkins launches an investigation of her own.
'A Far Cry from Kensington' is a delightful trek into the world of publishing, ca. 1950s, and a wonderfully droll study of character. I've read only one other novel by Spark, but I'll definitely be seeking out more.
"Quirky. funny and just very good"
As an antidote to the dark days of January and February, I can't think of a better listen. Beautifully and sparingly read, I was simply lost in the odd world of these characters, where a strange combination of fairy-tale and grit coincide. A mix of autobiographical elements and gentle story telling.
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