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December 22, 2010

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

I read Barbara Comyns’ book Our Spoons Came From Woolworths strictly for fun, with no intention of blogging about it, but then once it was finished I desperately required somebody to talk about it with. And you will do! I first saw reference to the book at the DoveGreyReader blog, where she didn’t mention the book at all, but it was included in  a stack of books about eccentric middlebrow families. The title was memorable. And then Stephany Aulenback at Crooked House included some excerpts as part of her (Having) Babies in Literature Series. I also really liked the pink in the cover, then picked up a copy at the Vic Book Sale in September whose spine had never even been cracked. (For those of you who share my aversion to dogs in books, do note that the cover photo is slightly misleading. There is a dog, but he is actually a fox, and only comes in at the end.)

The book’s copyright page states, “The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty”. Chapter 9 begins, “This book does not seem to be growing very large although I have got to Chapter Nine. I think this is partly because there isn’t any conversation. I could just fill pages like this: “I am sure it is true,” said Phyllida./ “I cannot agree with you,” answered Norman”… That is the kind of stuff that appears in real people’s books.” Chapter 38 is entitled “The Last Chapter”, and begins, “This is the end of my book, but not the end of my story, which will go on until I die…”

All of which is to say that this novel is a delightful blend of fiction and memoir, made up in a whimsical form whose lightness very nearly belies the rawness of its subject matter. Sophia marries Charles at the age of 21 in 1930s’ London, and they set up house together. (This was when poor people lived on Primrose Hill). Charles is devoted to his painting (and his mother thinks he is a genius) and therefore has an aversion to earning a living, so Sophia supports them both with commercial art work and posing for painters. When she eventually becomes pregnant, Charles (along with his family) blames her for ensnaring him into the mess of domesticity, but Sophia is determined to make their situation work. The chapter of her birth (which is the aforementioned Chapter 10, btw) is brutally awful, but delivered in the matter-of-fact chirpiness that runs through the entire story, whether Sophia is dealing with her botched abortion, her infidelity, her husband’s inattention, their poverty, and the eventual death of her daughter. Oddly enough, this isn’t a depressing story at all, because Sophia never fails to be optimistic, to take notice of the rare happy times, because the entire story is delivered in retrospect, so the self-pity and sadness is glossed over.

What we get then is an unconventionally-structured narrative about unconventionally-structured lives, a fast-paced read from the perspective of a unique and captivating narrator. Hooray for Virago Modern Classics, which brings women’s stories back into print (though from examining their catalogue, I see that ought to go about bringing this one back into print again). Definitely, everything the cover would have you expecting (except the dogs).

2 thoughts on “Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns”

  1. Abby says:

    This sounds really good, I’ll have to check it out. And it’s nice to meet you! x

  2. Really glad that you enjoyed this book – I love it; Barbara Comyns had such a wonderful individual voice. Have you tried Who was changed and who was dead? That is another excellent read.
    Great to find your blog!
    Hannah

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