By Erin Byrne
From 8-12 October York St John University will be holding its inaugural ‘Comfort Reads Week’, hosted by ILE. This week of events seeks to celebrate and explore the power of reading for promoting and ensuring wellbeing. To get in the mood, we asked our students to tell us about their favourite comfort reads. In this post, Erin Byrne shares her love of A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark.
After much deliberation, I eventually chose Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington as my Comfort Read. Spark has always been up there as one of my all-time favourite writers, as she writes in a way that is instantly relatable. Her wit is knife-sharp, and her writing is funny in a manner that never comes across as too obvious or patronising. In A Far Cry from Kensington, the main character, Mrs Hawkins, is writing from the 1980s about her time working for a publishing house in London thirty years earlier. One of my favourite aspects of this novel is the life tips sprinkled in by Spark, which range from how to improve your concentration – acquire a cat – to how to lose weight, alongside pieces of brilliant writing advice, some of which has had an impact on my own writing and the way I perceive my own work:
Write as if you are writing to an old friend.
The book is a short read at just under 200 pages, but its double-pronged plot is engaging from the start, with characters and drama from Mrs Hawkins publishing career as well as her private life mingling together, yet never in a way that feels clunky or obtrusive. The plot begins when an anonymous and threatening letter turns up at the boarding-house where Mrs Hawkins lives, addressed to one of the residents there. This turn of events gives the novel the tone of an old-school whodunit, and lays the foundation for a story driven by the weird and wonderful people she lives and works with. In the interest of not spoiling the plot, I won’t divulge too much, but I will say that there is a climax to the plot that is ultimately quite shocking, and the loose ends are tied up as well as they could be.
Spark describes each and every scene in a manner that is both easy to digest and carries a hefty impact, creating a feeling that you could step straight into the pages and be out of the 21st century, straight into bustling post-War London. This factors into my belief that this is a proper comfort read – it is a piece of escapism. No, it isn’t set on the International Space Station in the Year 3000, nor does it take place in a faraway fantasy land filled with magic and monsters, but it is so solidly written that it makes a crumbling publishing house in 1950s London feel just as spectacular.
Among her witticisms and commentary on the revival of this new post-war world, there are scathing remarks about the exploitation of women’s ‘cleverness’ in the publishing industry, and a strong but silent resentment of the men she works underneath. Mrs Hawkins is an example of the classic ‘strong female character’, and not just literally – she describes herself as ‘massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, [with] a bulging belly and a huge backside’. She is a beacon of hope and comfort for those around her, all the while being strong-willed enough to forge her career in a male-dominated space.
To me personally, there is something incredibly comforting about reading the story of a woman who is different from her peers, certainly no typical 50’s housewife, being (mostly) respected in a career that has always been a dream of mine. Underneath it all, A Far Cry from Kensington is a wry look at the creative process, especially that of writers and people who wish to write, and it holds a special place in my heart for really ripping the covers off creative types and picking our habits apart. I always will appreciate and be comforted by writers writing about writing, as it is something that I hold very dear to me. Not only that, but this novel is a great little detective story as well! I can only hope that my writing is one day as multi-faceted and engaging as Spark’s, and elicits a response in others like she has done for me.
Do you have a favourite Comfort Read you return to time and again? If so, and you’d like to share your love in a 600-800-word post, email our blog editors Adam (email@example.com) and Saffron (firstname.lastname@example.org).