4 January 2015

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Reading experiences that end with hugging the book to your chest and wiping a tear from your eye down to sheer pleasure are treasured ones.  This book is one of those.  I first heard about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths years ago and always mixed it up with The Brontes Went to Woolworths.  I shied away from reading reviews too thoroughly because I didn't want the story spoiled and so was blissfully ignorant as to what to expect once I opened the cover.  It has all become crystal clear why this isn't a book you find very often on second-hand shelves.  Not only will I never part with my copy but any future copies I do find will be bought up and passed on to friends.

In this, Comyns second book, Sophia shares the details of her early married life with who the reader assumes is a friend.  The events are so tragic that Helen is in tears and when her husband hears the story he promptly arrives at Sophia's home with a sympathetic gift of strawberries.  By the second paragraph the reader is whisked back in time to when Sophia and Charles, whom she met on a train the year before, are preparing for a wedding and both only twenty-one.  The bride is so naive as to the larger picture that she brings her pet newt, Great Warty, along in her pocket 'as a sort of page'.  Both are woefully unprepared for the responsibilities which lie ahead.

'When we got in the church the priest took Charles right away.  I thought it was a trick of his mother's at first, but no one seemed surprised.  Then I saw him standing with James very stiff and still.  They made me sit in a pew with Paul and at I felt a little scared in case they married me to him by mistake.'

I remember reading somewhere that during, shall we say, less carefree eras, couples would marry young so they could have sex.  Within no time at all a couple living in penury and starving would have to ask themselves whether the trade off was worth it.  With Charles spending his days playing at being a very unsuccessful artist it's Sophia who feels the responsibility of earning enough money and sits as a life model to pay the bills.  A few small cheques from her older sister, Ann, or the pawn shop are sometimes needed to bridge the gaps.  Though the only time Charles seems to worry about money is when his supply of cigarettes dwindles.  Unsurprisingly, in less than three months Sophia is pregnant and without any of the joy most couples share with this news, in fact, Charles is livid.  When there isn't enough food to cover three meals a day for two, life will inevitably be more difficult with the needs of a growing baby.

If you haven't read this book I wouldn't blame you for wondering where the charm exists with such a dreary synopsis but spend a few minutes reading Sophia's voice and you will be entranced.  In Maggie O'Farrell's introduction she wrote...

'I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop.  Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn't make it back to the holiday flat for some time.'

Another part of the appeal is the setting of 1930s Bohemian London...velvet dresses, painted furniture, and flats let for for mere shillings that would be considered a Millionaires' Row these days.  Also, Sophia's character grows and matures throughout the book while experiencing many of life's lessons with a matter-of-factness that I found quite admirable.  Her voice is so genuine it didn't take much figuring out to realize that many of the descriptions of Sophia's daily life are autobiographical, and therefore, even more heartbreaking.  And yet, there is an undeniable sense of optimism that something better has to be just around the corner.  

Lucky for me, there is a copy of The Vet's Daughter on my shelves.  If star ratings are anything to go by it's even more popular with readers than Our Spoons Came From Woolworths....hard to believe.  I was so tempted to go straight from one Comyns book to another but have decided to carry Sophia around with me a little bit longer.


 Woolworths, 1930s

10 comments:

  1. Happy New Year! Have been catching up on posts--I saw The Imitation Game over the break, too, and thought it was so good! Have The Paying Guests on my reading pile to get to soon, I hope! And I mix up the two books all the time as well--I think I would love this Comyns novel--will have to pull it from my shelves as I happily have it on hand! Happy Reading! :)

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    1. And Happy New Year to you, Danielle! Run and grab that book from the shelves and read it sooner rather than later...preferably during a stretch when you don't have anything to do for a couple of hours. Hope all is well with you and you're not too, too miserable with the chilly winds across the continent today!

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  2. I own a few of Comyns' novels and in true book hoarder style I have not read any of them. This one sounds too good to be true. I always listen when a fellow reader writes about that utter sense of bliss they feel after finishing a book. There's something so pure about that feeling. On to the 2015 pile this book goes!

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    1. Be very glad of your stash, Anbolyn, you had to know you were on to a good thing when you bought those books! I'm having a debate with myself as to whether I should just order everything Comyns ever wrote or make the hunt part of the fun. Looking forward to your thoughts once you've read this wonderful book!

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  3. This was the first Comyns I read and I adored it -- now I long to re-read it. But The Vet's Daughter was also wonderful so you've got a treat in store.

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    1. So glad to know that you feel the same way, Harriet. I wanted to leap through the pages so I could write Sophia a cheque and take her for a good shop...poor thing.

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  4. I adored this book, it's so wondrous in it's melancholy. Of the three of her books I've read (The Vets Daughter and Sisters by a River being the other two) Spoons is the best. I look forward to reading your thoughts on The Vet's Daughter as well.

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    1. You are so right about the melancholy. I love succinct stories that on the surface seem so simple buy convey so much...it can only be down to a gifted writer. And thank you for letting me know how Our Spoons stands against her other books...I can't imagine anything else being as good but am looking forward to finding out.

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  5. I've eyed this a few times but never bought. Will have to change that the next time I'm near Foyle's!

    I saw the Imitation Game before Christmas. It was very moving, wasn't it?

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    1. Kate!...buy this book! Oh, it was and I can't wait to see it again...super cast as well.

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