‘They told a lot, but of course they didn’t tell everything.
Nobody will ever know the whole truth.’ — [The Feast]
When beginning a novel, and you are given the dramatic conclusion in the first few pages, how is it that the reader keeps reading with growing intensity, to ‘see how it is all going to come about?’
This is the magic of a superb storyteller.
Margaret Kennedy’s novel The Feast (1949) spins a web of taut suspense that captures a reader from the outset. The atmosphere is lightened at times by some humorous moments, some sardonic wit, yet the unfolding human drama—revealed via letters, journal entries, and some ‘real-time’ scenes and dialogue— builds irresistibly.
‘The book moves with speed and there is amazing suspense — the reader knows what will happen, but not to whom.’ (from the dust jacket)
The coast of Cornwall, and a picturesque old seaside manor house-turned-hotel is the setting. The house sits atop a bluff overlooking a Pendizack Cove. The tide coming in, going out, is the one constant…
In the beginning it is reminiscent of an Agatha Christie mystery. The guests begin to arrive; they come by train and car…all burdened with dreary baggage of one kind or another, all hoping for a summer escape. It is the kind of scene setting that I love, when a variety of characters are assembled under one roof, and they begin a sort of psychological journey together.
Soon enough the potentially explosive dynamics and the often heart-breaking complexity of human interaction begins to play out, muddled along with the daily routines of emptying slops, burning the toast or serving cold haddock. There is even a romance that begins to brew from an unlikely pair.
The victims, the heroes, the villains start taking shape.
There are sweet children, there are kind people, industrious people, there are some louses and human detritus, but from the beginning we know that seven of these people will die. The cliff that towers so magnificently over the house will tumble down, and seven people will be trapped inside. The house becomes their tomb.
The rest? They will be safe, at The Feast.
‘They dined on mince, and slices of quince
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
They danced by the light of the moon….’ [Edward Lear: The Owl and The Pussycat]
I particularly loved the almost Hitchcockian way that Kennedy employed the natural world to heighten the sense of crisis. The widening cracks in the bluff above; the sudden lack of nesting gulls in the cliffside; the mass exodus of scurrying mice across the patio, the intermittent fall of rocks from above…all tell the reader that the disaster is imminent. The household though, at least until the very last, remains pitifully unaware.
It has been described as ‘allegory turned social comedy’ . This was by Margaret Kennedy’s granddaughter, Serena Mackesy, who also described The Feast as her favorite story. (Full interview here.)
The novel is, indeed, well-laced with allegory; but because the story is so absorbing, and the characters so real, their interactions so life-like, the allegorical underpinnings do not distract. Rather, they give you cause to keep thinking about the book after it is concluded.
Reading a novel like this reminds me of what it felt like reading fiction in ‘the old days’; that state of being completely engrossed in the characters and their stories. The feeling that you cannot put down the book until you have finished it. These days, that’s a rare treat.
Thanks to Jane and her lovely reader’s blog for sharing her appreciation for the works of Margaret Kennedy. I have really enjoyed discovering this enigmatic author’s work, and the good news is–I have a lot more books to go!
Further (long-winded!) notes of interest:
The allegorical spine of the story is, according to the author’s own comments, The Seven Deadly Sins. As the story develops, each of the seven who die in the collapse can be readily tagged with the ‘sin’ that they personify. These characters, we are given to understand, could have changed, could have bettered themselves, but did not. Their character and principal negative attributes harden as the story progresses, and by the end, we have a pretty clear idea who will be the seven who die. (we actually know one identity from the beginning of the story, it is the other six we are left to surmise).
Their deaths are to be viewed as retributions. Their bodies are utterly buried in rock; unrecoverable. What could be conceived of as ‘an act of God’, is also, the author makes clear, something that could have been avoided. No lives needed to be lost. There were clues as to what was happening to the hillside, and there was even, we find out, a letter from a Government official warning that the cliffside was unstable. The warning went unheeded.
On the other end of allegory there are the Seven Virtues. In the religious thought apparently being referenced by the author, these seven virtues can prevent the seven sins from flourishing. These virtues are represented by the children—there are seven youth staying in the hotel— and principally would apply to the three innocent Cove sisters. They are tragically neglected by their mother, (what a horrible woman….! perhaps a bit exaggerated for effect, but effective for the storyline)…but the girls maintain such a positive, happy spirit, and generous nature, they are truly the heroes of the story. Faith, virtue and love would be my assessment for Blanche, Maud, and Beatrix. Of the other four children, the strong-willed Hebe and her outlandish bravado surely represents Courage.
The death of the seven people in the end is balanced by the life that is now given, is essence, to the deserving, the innocent, who are at ‘The Feast’ when the disaster strikes.
The feast enjoyed at the end is itself allegorical, referencing the Feast of Fools. This is strongly suggested by the tone of childish amusements, the concept of the humble and downtrodden asserting temporary power, and certainly the costumed buffoonery of the Cove children’s party, which makes no sense otherwise!
By this time in the novel, the reader is well aware that this is the most vital scene. Everything has led us to this feast. Nothing, from food to drink to songs sung, was left to chance—not with an author so clever as Margaret Kennedy. She is weaving her strands together into one final, decisive knot.
The tone of the ‘feast’ is styled for a reason. Everyone is to come dressed as an Edward Lear character; even the very modest Mrs. Paley dons an impossibly ridiculous hat, to the scorn of her husband.
“What are you?” he shouted.
“A Quangle Wangle,” she quavered.
“A what? I can’t hear!”
“I’m a Quangle Wangle.”
“And what may a Quangle Wangle be?”
“I don’t know. Nobody knows.”
The oddity intensifies; the singing and dancing spirals to a rowdy crescendo; it all begins to feel increasingly bizarre, yet you know one thing for sure.
Margaret Kennedy is leading you to a very clear moral destination.
Curious about ‘a runcible spoon’? An attempt at definition here: