Saturday, 26 November 2016

our spoons came from woolworths

On Saturday 11th May I stayed up late and finished reading Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. I didn't like it at all - miserable events, horrible people, simpleton narration.

I knew quite soon that I wasn't liking it, but I couldn't bring myself to not finish it. I still find it very hard not to finish a book, even at my advanced age, though I am getting better at it. This one wasn't too long, though; I guess I'm more inclined to bale out if it's a long book. Also, it wasn't a hard/slow read; just one I didn't enjoy.

They spoke about it on the Backlisted podcast, and loved it - I put off listening to the podcast until I'd finished reading it, having picked it up not long before. I like the Backlisted podcast very much - a podcast about old books, not new releases - even when they're talking about a book or author I can tell I won't like. That's part of the skill of criticism too - letting you be able to tell if you're not going to like a book they love. I won't be seeking out any more Barbara Comyns (or, to give another Backlisted-loved example, Jean Rhys).

The book turned out to be - as it sounded - autobiographical, which made its awful events, and the flat narration in the face of them, even worse. (There is a note, clearly by her, on the copyright page which says 'The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 [an awful birth experience] and the poverty.', which you can believe if you like.) I really hated the narrative style/tone. I don't know if she writes all her books like that. There is a quote on the front of my (2013 Virago Modern Classics) edition from Maggie O'Farrell saying 'Quite simply, Comyns writes like no one else', which might suggest that she does. But you can be sure I will never find out.

The cover of my edition in no way prepared me for the contents of the book, which didn't help my non-appreciation of it, as, although the blurb on the back suggested the bare plot description might be a bumpy ride, the rather jolly illustration and typefaces suggested a lighthearted recounting of these trials and tribulations, rather than the miserable book which was actually within.

First line: I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.
Last line: It was a waste to talk about such distressing subjects on such a lovely spring afternoon, but she listened and I talked on and on and the ants carrying their eggs walked over our bare legs and we hardly noticed, and that is really how I came to write this story.

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