Year 2 / Book 29: The Ballad of Peckham Rye

29) The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

My experience of Muriel Spark had been limited to the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie before this, so thanks to Gen for sending this little gem through. It’s a slim, sharp novel featuring a mischievous Scotsman, Dougal Douglas (or possibly Douglas Dougal) causing havoc amongst the lives of Peckham residents, most notably those at one of its local firms – the exciting-as-it-sounds textile firm of Meadows, Meade and Grindley. Imagine a sort of bleak, lifeless Mad Men office in South London in the 1950s and 60s and you are just about there.

It’s a fascinating read – Spark seems to be at once attempting to critique the drudgery of working class (and middle class) life in Peckham, to comment on the inter-relationship between arts and industry (Douglas is theoretically taken on to bridge the gap between the two), and also to set a devilish, supernatural tale in a simple London setting. It just about manages to hold all three strands together, woven by the caustic nature of the writing and the inexorable manoeuvring of the plot – by the end, there are deaths, injuries and cancelled weddings amongst much else.Crucially, of course, it is also very funny – there are some lovely incisive damning cuts of humour, and some fabulous dialogue amongst the participants (“My life’s so rotten”; “And it’s not even over yet” etc). And underneath the humour is a nagging sense of a dark, comic malevolence from Dougal Douglas who is a tricksy, whimsical but also nasty character who inflicts nothing but misery on everyone he comes across. The fact that he ‘escapes’ Peckham to move on to the next place tells its own story.

There’s not an indulgent word here, and I personally love Spark’s sharpness and wit; it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you want a short slice of fantastical-meets-kitchen sink drama, then you could do a lot worse: you’ll laugh a lot too.

Score: 8/10

BUY IT NOW;The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Penguin Modern Classics)

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