Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

I read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns for the What’s in a Name Challenge (in the category of a book with item/items of cutlery in the title). It’s a book that I’ve been meaning to read for years.

Description from the back cover:

Pretty, unworldly Sophia is twenty-one years old and hastily married to a young painter called Charles. An artist’s model with an eccentric collection of pets, she is ill-equipped to cope with the bohemian London of the 1930s, where poverty, babies (however much loved) and husband conspire to torment her.

Hoping to add some spice to her life, Sophia takes up with Peregrine, a dismal, ageing critic, and comes to regret her marriage ‘“ and her affair. But in this case virtue is more than its own reward, for repentance brings an abrupt end to the cycle of unsold pictures, unpaid bills and unwashed dishes . . .

My thoughts:

I quoted the opening and an extract from page 56 in one of my Friday Posts. Now I’ve finished the book I understand the opening sentence ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried’, because it’s such a sad and, in parts even a tragic, story. As the synopsis indicates this is set in 1930s London and Sophia and her husband Charles (both artists) live a life of poverty whilst he struggles to sell his artwork. Actually Charles contributes very little money and it is left to Sophia to earn whatever she can working in a commercial art studio and as an artists’ model.

Their marriage is blighted by Sophia’s money worries and Charles’s cavalier attitude to life. Things get worse when Sophia realises she is pregnant – Charles had told her before they were married he never wanted to have children – and she realises too late that her idea of birth control as being a matter of controlling your thoughts and thinking very hard, and saying ‘I won’t have any babies’ was quite wrong!  After the birth of Sandro, a harrowing experience that makes me so thankful for the NHS, their situation deteriorates even further.

Despite their circumstances, Sophia tells her story in a casual, matter of fact way, with much humour. Sandro is a small, sickly baby and Sophia was afraid he would die. She also thought that if she applied for free milk the council would take him away if on the grounds that his parents had no visible means of support. Charles is no help to her at all, he dislikes Sandro and wants him out of the way:

‘Babies have no feelings and would be just as happy in an orphanage as anywhere else.’ On the other hand, he would be much happier of the baby was out of the way, so to send him to a ‘home’ was much the most reasonable thing  to do. (page 71)

Theirs is a life of hardship and heartbreaking tragedy, but Sophia’s spirit is not broken despite the tragic events that descend upon her. From a lighthearted and comic beginning the mood of the novel darkens as it moves towards an inevitable tragic climax. What seems to make it even more tragic is the conversational tone in which it is all told, concealing such real pain. However, the novel does not end with tragedy – it is not all doom and gloom and as the opening page reveals Sophia survives to tell her story:

… it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try to keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a semi-autobiographical novel as indicated by this note at the beginning of the book:

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

Thankfully the really tragic events do not occur in these chapters. There are moments of comedy and humour throughout and the novel is written in a light, chatty style. It is a portrait of life in the Thirties, a life ruled by poverty and hardship and of a marriage destroyed by circumstances and personalities.

Barbara Comyns (1909 – 1992) began to write and illustrate her stories as a child. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, first published in 1950 was her second novel.

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Virago (4 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844089274
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844089277
  • Source:  library book
  • My Rating: 3˜…

Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Disquiet and dread permeate this novel

Harriet Said...

Blurb (from Amazon):

A girl returns from boarding school to her sleepy Merseyside hometown and waits to be reunited with her childhood friend, Harriet, chief architect of all their past mischief. She roams listlessly along the shoreline and the woods still pitted with wartime trenches, and encounters ‘the Tsar’ – almost old, unhappily married, both dangerously fascinating and repulsive.

Pretty, malevolent Harriet finally arrives – and over the course of the long holidays draws her friend into a scheme to beguile then humiliate the Tsar, with disastrous, shocking consequences. A gripping portrayal of adolescent transgression, Beryl Bainbridge’s classic first novel remains as subversive today as when it was written.

My thoughts:

Harriet Said is a dark story that turns child abuse on its head. It is an unsettling and chilling book, beginning as Harriet and her friend, an unnamed 13 year-old girl, run home screaming to tell their parents what had happened. Harriet says:

When I say run, you start to run. When I say scream, you scream. Don’t stop running. just you keep going. (page 2)

It is one of those books that, although it is well written and makes compulsive reading, can’t be said to be enjoyable and the characters are not at all likeable.

It is set just after the Second World War in the Formby sand dunes on the outskirts of Liverpool.  During their school holidays the two girls make their way to the beach each evening, where they become friends with a group of lonely, dispirited middle-aged men.  They are not naive or innocent, but neither are they fully aware of the consequences of their actions as they set out to manipulate the men, the ‘Tsar’ in particular. They want to gather ‘experience’, which they record in Harriet’s diary:

A year ago to be called a Dirty Little Angel would have kept us going for months. Now it was not enough; more elaborate things had to be said; each new experience had to leave a more complicated tracery of sensations; to satisfy us every memory must be more desperate than the last.

… We took to going long walks over the shore, looking for people who by their chosen solitariness must have something to hide. We learnt early that it was the gently resigned ones who had the most to tell; the frantic and voluble were no use. (pages 39 and 40)

It is Harriet who decides their actions and dictates what to write in the diary.

They peek through the windows of the Tsar’s house and watch as he ‘lay pinned like a moth on the sofa‘ underneath his wife as she ‘poisoned him slowly, rearing and stabbing him convulsively. This sickens the 13 year-old, who wants to be loved by the Tsar, but Harriet decides that he is weak and submissive, saying that he likes being a victim and must be punished in a way he doesn’t like. From that point onwards events move rapidly to a shocking conclusion.

I’ve read a few of Beryl Bainbridge’s books and each one has kept me engrossed. Harriet Said is the first one she wrote, based on a real event, and although she submitted it for publication in 1958 it wasn’t published until 1972 because of its subject matter – ‘What repulsive little creatures you have made the central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief!‘ wrote one editor. I found it a disturbing story as the manipulation escalated and everything began to spiral out of the girls’ control as childhood fled from them.

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Virago (6 Dec. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184408860X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844088607
  • Source: a library book
  • My rating: 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 stars on Goodreads)

My Friday Post: Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires. Harriet Said...

My opener this week is from Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge. I’ve enjoyed all of Beryl Bainbridge’s books that I’ve read so far, so I’m keen to read this one – the first book she wrote and submitted for publication in 1958. However, it was rejected because of its content and was not published until 1972. It is set just after the war in a Liverpool suburb near the Formby sand dunes where Beryl Bainbridge grew up.

It begins:

When I came home for the holidays, Harriet was away with her family in Wales. She had written to explain it was not her fault and that when she came back we would have a lovely time.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

We rode the roundabouts, shrieking among the painted horses, riding endlessly round and round, waiting for the Tsar to come.

Blurb (from Goodreads):

Two schoolgirls are spending their holiday in an English coastal town: Harriet is the older at 14 and the leader of the two. The 13-year-old unnamed narrator develops a crush on an unhappily married middle-aged man, Peter Biggs, whom they nickname “the Tsar.” Led by pretty, malevolent Harriet they study his relationship with his wife, planning to humiliate him. Their plan quickly goes wrong, however, with horrifying results.

The Quarry by Iain Banks

The Quarry

Blurb:

Kit doesn’t know who his mother is. What he does know, however, is that his father, Guy, is dying of cancer. Feeling his death is imminent, Guy gathers around him his oldest friends ‘“ or at least the friends with the most to lose by his death. Paul ‘“ the rising star in the Labour party who dreads the day a tape they all made at university might come to light; Alison and Robbie, corporate bunnies whose relationship is daily more fractious; Pris and Haze, once an item, now estranged, and finally Hol ‘“ friend, mentor, former lover and the only one who seemed to care.

But what will happen to Kit when Guy is gone? And why isn’t Kit’s mother in the picture? As the friends reunite for Guy’s last days, old jealousies, affairs and lies come to light as Kit watches on.

My thoughts:

I enjoyed The Quarry, the last book Iain Banks wrote. He explained in this interview that it’s a fairly simple book with not many characters, with only really one location and “it doesn’t muck around with flashbacks or narrative order.” It is quite strange really because he had already written 90% of it before he was diagnosed with cancer. I’m sometimes a bit wary of novels on cancer, but The Quarry isn’t in the slightest a sentimental book, nor is it solely about cancer, or death, although Guy does rant about it. I particularly enjoyed his rants – as well as those about cancer he also rants about God, faith, miracles, politics, celebrities, the ‘hounding of the poor and disabled and the cosseting of the rich and privileged‘, the unfair society we live in and so on.

Kit and Guy live in a house that is gradually falling to pieces, situated on the edge of a quarry in the Pennines. Kit is the narrator so we see the events of the weekend when Guy’s friends came to visit through his eyes, as they reminisce about their time as film students and search through the house for a video tape they had made that could ruin all of their lives if it became public. And, of course, he wants to know who is mother is, is it Hol, Ali or Pris, or someone else?

Kit is my favourite character. He is ‘very clever, if challenged in other ways‘, meaning he is ‘on a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other.‘ He spends much of his time playing an online game called HeroSpace. I liked the descriptions of his rituals and his need for order – stirring tea and shopping in a certain order etc. Kit’s internal monologue on responding to conversations is also fascinating, illustrating his struggles to interact with people socially.

I read it quickly – it’s well written, easy to read and fast paced. The main characters, Kit, Guy and Hol are convincing characters, whereas the rest remained a bit blurred in my mind, despite the detailed descriptions of what they were wearing. The physical setting, whilst not actually precisely located, is good. I could easily visualise the house and its immediate setting next to the quarry, which plays a big part in the novel both as a physical entity and metaphorically – living on the edge of a precipice into which inevitably we will all fall.

I was gripped by the two strands – will they find the tape and what is on it and will Kit find out the identity of his mother? And Guy’s character is particularly intriguing. It’s an entertaining book, funny in parts, angry, sad and miserable in others and about relationships and secrets.

The Quarry is only the second book by Iain Banks that I’ve read. I’ve also read The Crow Road, which I thoroughly enjoyed, although I never got round to writing down my thoughts about it. I’m tempted to re-read it for comparison. I’ve started to read The Wasp Factory a few times and never got very far as other books pulled me away from it. So I’ll try that again and the only other book of his that I own, A Song of Stone.

A Life Like Other People’s by Alan Bennett

A Life Like Other People's

Alan Bennett’s A Life Like Other People’s is a poignant family memoir offering a portrait of his parents’ marriage and recalling his Leeds childhood, Christmases with Grandma Peel, and the lives, loves and deaths of his unforgettable aunties Kathleen and Myra. Bennett’s powerful account of his mother’s descent into depression and later dementia comes hand in hand with the uncovering of a long-held tragic secret. A heartrending and at times irresistibly funny work of autobiography by one of the best-loved English writers alive today. (Amazon)

I really like Alan Bennett’s work and was pleased to find this little book in the mobile library recently. It’s a beautifully written book taken from his collection Untold Stories and illustrated with black and white photographs. There is drama in this memoir, but written with clarity and keen observation in quiet tones about lives that are anything but ordinary. It is a completely absorbing book as Bennett recalls his childhood. He writes about his family including his two aunties, Kathleen and Myra, two very different characters from their sister, his mother. They saw themselves as ‘dashing, adventuresome creatures, good sports and always on for what they see as a lark.‘ They wore scent and camiknickers, and had the occasional drink and smoked.

He writes of mother’s fears – ‘of being spied on, listened to, shamed and detected‘ of her dread of being ‘the centrepiece‘ especially at her wedding. His parents didn’t like ‘splother‘, his father’s word for ‘the preening and fuss invariably attendant on the presence of the aunties.‘ Then there are the sad facts about his mother’s depression and subsequent dementia as she descended into delusion, her stays in hospital and the effect that had on the family.

There are revelations of family secrets and many touching and sad (but never sentimental) episodes, for example the futile search for Aunty Kathleen, suffering from a condition similar to Alzheimer’s, after she just walked out of her hospital ward. She was found several days later in drenched undergrowth in a wood near the M6.

It is a sad book but also a heart-warming story – the love of his parents and family shines throughout the book.

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (3 Sept. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571248128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571248124
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2.3 x 17.5 cm
  • Source: Library

The Malice of Waves by Mark Douglas-Home

The Malice of Waves (The Sea Detective) by [Douglas-Home, Mark]Blurb (from the back cover):

Investigator Cal McGill uses his knowledge of tides, winds and currents to solve mysteries no-one else can.

Five years ago, fourteen-year-old Max Wheeler disappeared from a remote Scottish island. None of the six police and private investigations since have shed any light on what happened.

Unable to let go, Max’s family call in Call McGill. Known as The Sea Detective  – hoping he’ll force the sea to give up its secrets. Yet Cal finds he is an outsider to a broken family, and an unwelcome stranger to a village that has endured years of suspicion.

Cal knows that a violent storm is approaching. But what he doesn’t know is that when it cuts off the island a killer will see their chance …

My thoughts:

The Malice of Waves is the third book in Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective Mystery series and I think it is my favourite. It has an interesting opening scene as Cal sinks a dead pig into the sea off Priest’s Island (a fictional island) to try to work out where the tides, underwater currents and eddies might have taken Max’s body. It’s really a cold case enquiry and there is no new evidence to help him discover the truth. Each year on the anniversary of Max’s disappearance, his family hold a memorial service on the island. His father is convinced that the villagers are complicit in his son’s murder.

The Malice of Waves is just as much a story of the villagers as it is of the Wheeler family and the setting of Priest’s Island, beautifully described by Douglas-Hume, is also a major part of the book. The location came to life as I read the book, making it easy to visualise the scenes. It’s well written and easy to read, leading me effortlessly into the mystery. The police are also present on the island as DS Helen Jamieson is staying undercover in the village, helping Cal with his investigations. I like the insight into Helen’s unspoken feelings for Cal. Both her and Cal are strong, independent characters and the other characters are well depicted too.

Interwoven into the main story is ‘Pinkie’ Pyke’s story. He is a collector of birds’ eggs, but his interest is into rare erythristic bird eggs, those with pink or reddish colouring and there is a raven’s’ nest on the island.

The Malice of Waves is a fascinating book, not only an engrossing mystery, but also a study of the sea, of birds’ eggs (I had never heard of erythristic eggs before), of obsessions and of the way people cope, or don’t cope with grief. I loved it.

Reading challenges: Read Scotland – Mark Douglas-Home is a Scottish author.

Sunshine on Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith

I’ve read a few of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie books, which I enjoyed – but not any of his 44 Scotland Street novels. So when I saw Sunshine on Scotland Street in the library, going off the blurb on the back cover, I thought it would be a change from the crime fiction and historical novels I’ve been reading recently.

From the back cover:

Scotland Street witnesses the wedding of the century of Angus Lordie to Domenica Macdonald, but as the newlyweds depart on honeymoon Edinburgh is in disarray. Recovering from the trauma of being best man, Matthew is taken up by a Dane called Bo, while Cyril eludes his dog-sitter and embarks on an odyssey involving fox-holes and the official residence of a cardinal. Narcissist Bruce meets his match in the form of a sinister doppelganger; Bertie, set up by his mother for fresh embarrassment at school, yearns for freedom; and Big Lou goes viral. But the residents of Scotland Street rally, and order – and Cyril – is restored by the combined effects of understanding, kindness, and, most of all, friendship.

My thoughts:

Even though I haven’t read the seven books before this one I had no difficulty in following the storylines, although it is obvious that the characters all have backstories and previous relationships that are hinted at in this book. In a way it’s very like the Isabel Dalhousie books as the action is interspersed with McCall Smith’s philosophical and ethical musings, his thoughts about human nature and relationships, which in general I liked more than the story.

It begins with an amusing account of the preparations for Angus and Domenica’s wedding, which Angus seems to think will just happen without much preparation by him – a hole in his kilt, his lack of a ring, and he has given no thought at all about where to go for thier honeymoon. But his bestman, Matthew helps him sort out the kilt and ring problem and Domenica has arranged both the reception and the honeymoon.

After that Angus and Domenica disappear from the book until the last chapter, leaving Cyril, Angus’s dog in the care of the Pollock family, the insufferable Irene, her long-suffering husband, Stuart, 6 year-old son Bertie and baby Ulysses. Cyril and Bertie are my favourite characters in the book and their ‘adventures’ caused me much concern, as Irene does not like Cyril and stifles both Bertie and Stuart. In fact I wasn’t too bothered about any of the other characters, apart from Bertie’s spindly-legged friend from cub scouts, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson and his mother who has no difficulty in putting Irene firmly in her place.

This is an easy read, meandering from one character to the next. It has a light, humorous tone that I enjoyed, along with thoughts about friendship, religion, spirituality and happiness. At the end as Angus looks round the group of people gathered for their homecoming party it strikes him that they are an ‘infinitely precious band of souls’:

And this realisation that he had was not specifically religious – although it could easily and appropriately be that. It was, rather, a spiritual notion – the idea that each of us, even the least of us, has a rich hinterland of value behind us: the lives we have led, the thoughts we have had, the love we have given and received – the little things of our lives that may not mean much to others unless and until they are granted the insight that brings love into the heart, sudden, exalting love. To see another as a soul was to acknowledge the magnifcent, epic course that life is for each of us, and to experience sympathy for the other in his or her negotiation of that course. It was quite different from seeing others simply as people. (pages 294 – 295)

Reading challenges: Read Scotland and What’s In a Name, in the category of a book with a country in the title.

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Abacus (18 July 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0349139164
  • ISBN-13: 978-0349139166
  • Source: Library book