You know those books that you pick up every week, read the blurb on the back or even the first few pages but for some reason never buy? The ones you see whilst window shopping on your lunch break and are dying to get but, despite the cash jangling happily in your pocket, never do? Barbara Comyns’ novel Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was one such book for many months, attractive to me a) because of the marvellously mundane title and b) because Comyns’ name had been floating around in my head for a while thanks to knowledgeable folk in the book world, resulting in that nagging sensation that I really should get around to reading her at some point.
Sophia Fairclough is a hopelessly naïve young woman; pretty, foolish and all too trusting. Falling for and promptly marrying wannabe artist Charles, Sophia’s world plummets rapidly from carefree Bohemia into abject poverty, rarely managing to scrape the money together even to feed the baby – not that she could ever bear to admit it to her friends and neighbours. Relayed as a reflection from the past told to a friend, Sophia’s early twenties are full of quirky friendship, hardship and frightfully disappointing men. Reflecting periods in the author’s own life, particularly her fraught first marriage, Comyns’ portrayal of penny-pinching and narrowly-escaped destitution in Depression-era London is eerily lighthearted in tone. This girl needs to grow up, and fast.
I’d heard such good rumblings about Comyns’ writing that it came as rather a shock to discover a style so different from what I’m used to; a deliberately unsophisticated style that I was a little weary of at first. Is this good writing? Sophia’s studied simplicity made me feel rather confused.
It turns out that this is, in fact, very good writing; effortless and perfectly reflective of our narrator. Although a series of irresponsible, faintly ridiculous men and our heroine’s profound lack of sense and understanding of adult life can make for frustrating reading at times this is, in reality, a terribly subtle, foreboding book and an important portrayal of pre-war poverty in the capital. From the bohemian artist circles that add a little colour and pizzazz to proceedings, we plunge into the woes of unemployment, the misery of a cold, empty home and the inadequacies of the healthcare and welfare systems. Women, it seems, suffer most particularly in Comyns’ world, experiencing an outrageous lack of support, particularly when it comes to children and the raising of them. Children? Nah. A backstreet abortionist should do just fine…
Despite this poignancy and misery however, Comyns ensures smiles with a quirkiness of her very own. Eccentric additions to the tale such as Sophia’s pet newt, a psychic medium and a sculptor who never manages to finish a piece of work all add up to a sense of whimsy that leaves us wondering what will come next. As we are made aware from the start, thankfully our girl comes good in the end; growing to be a not-quite-so naïve woman with prospects, a healthy child and a pronounced sense of hindsight;
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. I hardly dare to admit it, even touching wood…’