Occasionally I happen across a book that defies recommendation by its very mood or subject matter, and yet I find I must, just must, recommend it anyway. So it is with Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns.
Joy is hard to find in the pages of Comyns’ tale of bohemian London, and yet in Sophia we find a childlike heroine we cannot help but root for even when she is forced by both poverty and bewilderment to undertake actions that promise to break all our hearts. Married at a silly age to a self-obsessed painter, Sophia finds herself in permanent exhausting battle with money or its lack, one pregnancy after another and the whims and whimsy of artistic men who never quite learn to love her as much as they love themselves.
Hers is a story of what it is to have spirit: to see the world very much in terms of this is what I need right now, and indeed to learn what it is to have to live with consequences of those same actions. One by one, Sophia’s hopes and dreams come crashing down in the early days of her marriage to Charles, as they ferry their sea-green painted furniture from one flat to the next as and when their fortunes rise and fall. It is in fact a sorry tale. A specific moment and place in time, though poverty and it’s grasp are universal and the emotions Sophia describes in her matter of fact voice, infinitely relate-able.
It seems glib to describe Our Spoons Came From Woolworths as quirky when it’s themes are frankly depressing, but quirky is what Sophia is, carrying a newt around in her pocket and throwing herself into an affair with an ageing critic she frequently describes as yellowed. Life modelling to keep her family in food, while her husband paints and re-paints the same canvases over and over, we sense both her desperation and paradoxically, her almost empty acceptance of the trials of poverty and its damaging influence on not just her marriage, but also her ability to Mother as she wants to, without having to farm her children out to anyone willing to have them.
So yep, it’s miserable. And Sophia is easy to love and difficult to understand, and the end ties up the strings of her life far prettier than it really should, but if I could give you one good reason to read Our Spoons Came Form Woolworths, it would be this- you will never have read a book written quite like it before. It is enthralling. And sad. And cheerful and mad. Comyns writes in such a way that it seems less like a novel than the telling of her own story. Grim moments in Sophia’s life are occasionally lost in one sentence after the next of then, and after that’s and sometimes the writing seems to be too true to be anything other than autobiographical. But that is where it’s charm lies: in being true and real and empty and so brimming with honest spirit, you are hard put, to put it down once you have been drawn in to Sophia’s life.
This is a writer I will be adding to my list of women who understand.