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Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

The world is a little out of kilter at the moment. A novel by Barbara Comyns seemed an ideal choice for the times. But although other books by her have very odd almost magical properties, this one, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is more straight forward than her later novels.

This is by no means the first of her books that I have reviewed on Bookword. You can find links to the others below.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

The central theme of this novel is poverty and the misery it causes. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, reassuring us that her story is grim but got better.

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries, he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. (1)

She frames the book as the story she told Helen, mentioning the importance of Sandro, how she regrets ‘lovely little Fanny’ and remembering ‘Charles’s white pointed face’. 

Having married another artist, Charles, very young and impetuously, Sophie lives in Bohemian London in the 1930s, in poverty. Her husband comes across as a selfish man, putting his own wants above others’, so she has to earn pennies sitting for artists while he stays at home and paints. There is no suggestion he should do the housework and cooking except as a favour. 

Sophie becomes pregnant which means she has to give up her work as a model. It also means that she has to endure childbirth in a charity hospital. The presence of their son, Sandro, puts a great deal of pressure on their finances and on their marriage. Charles’s family say that she is selfish to have a child and expect support from Charles. 

Their relationship, deteriorates and she begins an affair with the sleazy older art critic, Peregrine Narrow. She has a second child Fanny, fathered by Peregrine, but this child dies of scarlet fever just as Sophie leaves Charles and she has to stay in hospital to recover from the disease. This is her lowest point and Sophie only begins to recover when she finds a job as a cook for a farming family. She and Sandro live happily in the country for three years. It is here that she meets Rollo, another artist, and they live happily ever after.

Some of the most shocking passages concern the relatives who look after Sandro during a period of difficulty. They are Charles’s relatives and their strict rules are in contrast to the haphazard way in which he has previously been brought up. It proves hard to rescue him as Sophie rarely has the money for the fare.

In one sense this is a novel about a young woman gaining control over her own actions and decisions.

There is plenty in this novel about the lack of a public health service and the provision for people in poverty, expectations of women in marriage, child care and London in the 1930s.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon. She wrote many novels and is perhaps best known for Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Vet’s Daughter. Her early adult life was characterised by poverty, and she tried to earn her living by dealing in poodles, upmarket cars, antiques and by renovating pianos. 

She knew about poverty and insecurity. There is a strange note on the copyright page:

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

Chapters 10-12 are the ones set in the charity hospital and describe Sandro’s birth. Childbirth was not a subject dealt with in much detail in fiction at the time.

Then I was enveloped in a terrific sea of pain, and I heard myself shouting in an awful snoring kind of voice. Then they gave me something to smell and the pain dimmed a little. The pain started to grow again, but I didn’t seem to mind. I suddenly felt so interested in what was happening. The baby was really coming now and there it was between my legs. I could feel it moving and there was a great tugging in my tummy where it was still attached to me. Then I heard it cry, so I knew it was alive and I was able to relax. Perhaps I went to sleep. (52) 

Emily Gould in the Paris Review (in October 2015) suggests that her writing style was deliberately destabilising. There is a simplicity to her writing, but it has a dark side and more complexity that is largely masked. It was intended to knock the reader off balance. Perhaps it is a suitable book for our time, after all.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns first published in 1950 and republished as a Virago Modern Classic. I used the 2013 edition with an introduction by Maggie O’Farrell. 196pp

Other books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword

Here are links to reviews of some of her other books:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead (1954)

The Vet’s Daughter (1959)

The Juniper Tree (1985)

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A little rant about … Spoiler Alerts

This post is about spoiler alerts, what they mean and why they are so common. I am asking whether we need them. Are we in danger of saying that the story and its surprises are the most important thing about reading a novel. Really?

The donkey dies in the end

I cheered when I read this by David Rain.

Think of the phrase ‘spoiler alert’, so common in discussions of films, television series and even, nowadays, novels. What kind of work is ‘spoiled’ – used up, made redundant – once its surface narrative is known? A classic story can be told again and again. Shakespeare is never read for the last time; nor is Jane Austen. In Platero and I, we ‘spoil’ nothing by saying that the donkey dies in the end.

He was recommending Juan Ramon Jimenez’s novel Platero and I in Slightly Foxed (No 46, Summer 2015).

Recently I saw a spoiler alert on a blogpost about Mrs Dalloway. If Virginia Woolf were alive today she’d be turning in her grave! Now I ask you, would your pleasure in Pride and Prejudice be reduced if you knew that Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy get it together? Or that Jane Eyre is able to say of Mr Rochester, ‘Reader, I married him,’ and you already knew? Or even that in Rebecca, Maxim … no I’ll leave that one.

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

Cartoon from Amy Lynch tweet 28.5.15

The surface narrative is not the novel. Although the surface narrative may be the film, I’m not sure about that. But perhaps the reason why films of good novels are so popular may be connected to this primacy of the narrative. Here’s a link to the blogpost on novels that are ‘major motion pictures’.

A and B Readers and Writers?

Anthony Burgess divided writers into two kinds:

A writers are story tellers.

B writers are users of language.

For B writers prose is foremost and without it ‘you are reduced to what are merely secondary interests: story, plot, characterisation, psychological insight and form,’ according to Marin Amis in The Art of Fiction, 1998, Paris Review interview. Hmmm

Could we apply the same categories to readers?

A readers focus on the story.

B readers look at how writers express ideas.

If this division works I would say that A Readers dominate the blogosphere with their spoiler alerts.

But although I would say I am more of a B reader, the novel is nothing without those things: story, plot, characterisation etc. I’m sure there are exceptions, some experimental French novelist of the last century probably.

While novel reading is about the pleasure of the story, a great deal of that pleasure comes from how the writer writes. The writing presents and supports elements of the story. Literary fiction is about the art of the writer to tell us the story in a skilful way. For readers the manner or style of the telling is part of the experience.

And novels need tension to carry the reader to the end, but the tension doesn’t have to be about what on earth will happen? Whodunnits use the tension of clues and McGuffins to draw the reader on. Thriller readers want the hero to escape, with one enormous bound. That’s why it may be important not to reveal the plot twist in Rebecca, but reader she (not Rebecca, who was at the bottom …) got her man.

45 catch-22

Some novels aren’t written for suspense, for what happens. Reading can simply be watching the protagonist come to terms with the events. This is one of the strengths of Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, who in scene after scene, character after character convinces us of the many absurdities of war. Perhaps the writer is suggesting that nothing much gets resolved in the story: see The Green Road by Anne Enright for example, reviewed recently on this blog.

I know of one reader who always turned to the last page. She wanted to read the novel without the surprises that the story might bring, to know the outcomes so she could see how they got there.

To spoil or not?

225 S&S coverSometimes it seems important not to reveal the plot. For example, I did sidestep reviewing Sugar and Snails, by Anne Goodwin. The significant reveal is designed to get the reader to think about their assumptions. I love a novel that makes you think, but I didn’t feel I could review the novel without discussing what is revealed. Anne Goodwin’s own discussion of spoilers can be found on her blog, Do spoilers Spoil? We are all Completely Beside Ourselves. Anne quotes some research about spoilers (that weren’t) and readers of short stories. They preferred them spoiled!

I took a different line when I reviewed at We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler, where the central issue of the novel is disclosed on p77. Again, it challenges the reader: what were you assuming? And says, now you know THAT look at what it does to my story.

But on the whole I want fewer spoiler alerts.

BTW

Slightly Foxed is a quarterly and subscription details can be found on their website.

Over to You

We have energetic debates about spoiler alerts in one of my reading groups. Where do you stand?

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