I loved this book! It’s funny, clever and moving, with a seaside setting and a rich cast of characters. First published in 1950, the new edition comes with a foreword by Cathy Rentzenbrink.
The Feast begins with a prologue featuring the local vicar speaking to his friend. He explains that a local hotel has collapsed into the sea, leading to the deaths of a number of people. But, aside from the owner, Mr Siddal, he does not give the names of those who died.
The novel proper then goes back to one week before the disaster and introduces a fascinating and varied cast of characters. The hotel was formerly the family home of the Siddals but they have fallen on hard times. Mr Siddal was going to be a lawyer but walked away and lives in a state of perpetual ennui while his long-suffering wife takes paying guests and does all the cooking to pay the school fees of her two younger sons. Meanwhile her eldest son, a doctor, also works himself into the ground to help her.
The guests range from Lady Gifford and her family – who spent the war in exile and demands the best of everything, while still begrudging paying tax – to the Coves, three girls and their widowed mother, to Anna Lechene and Bruce, an aspiring author who is her chauffeur and personal secretary (with the emphasis on personal). At the heart of the story is the wonderful Nancibel, the maid who comes in daily to work at the hotel, who has returned home from war service with some choice language and a strong sense of her own worth.
The eclectic group are thrown together (with only one bathroom between them!) leading to a number of conflicts, romances and reckonings. There is cruelty, kindness, love, pettiness, and one character whose behaviour is quite chilling. No one wakes up on the day of the disaster unchanged. They are all looking forward, whether with joy or dread, to a very different future. But of course, we as readers know they will not all survive.
This gives The Feast great poignancy. As we come to know the residents of the hotel and watch them grow, we become invested in their future. We hope that certain characters will survive (and perhaps that others will not!) but we have to wait to the end to find out.
Beneath the charm and a rich vein of humour there is a very clever structure which asks questions about morality and society – what we owe to others and what we should reserve for ourselves. Mr Siddal – remember, the only one we know isn’t going to make it – offers thoughtful and articulate arguments on the nature of our responsibilities, which have a massive impact on one character in particular. His intelligent and well-argued views are subtly undercut, not only by his failure to follow his own edicts, but by the observation in the narrative that he could just as happily have made the opposite case.
The moral arguments are also interesting in the context of the post-war years. Everyone is preoccupied by making do, hoarding their ration points, wondering whether someone else is getting more than their share. Class barriers are breaking down. Miss Ellis, the housekeeper, insists on taking her meals in the dining room. Nancibel is willing to speak her mind, knowing she could easily find work elsewhere. There is talk of tax and justice and the nature of society.
The feast of the title refers to an event held for the children. The event takes on a magical feel, as the children excitedly prepare, and the adults help out with a mixture of kindness, reluctance and apathy. Coming as it does on the night the hotel collapses, the feast takes on a religious – or perhaps pagan – significance, and I approached it with both hope and trepidation, knowing this was where the story would end.
The Feast is enchanting, and full of lovely subtle touches – Anna is writing a novel based on the Brontës, while the three Cove girls live a rich imaginative life. There are Mr Siddal’s wry observations on the literary fate of Bruce and his predecessors. There’s the motif of the seven deadly sins.
Margaret Kennedy is a new name to me but I’m determined now to seek out more of her books.
I received a copy of The Feast from the publisher via Netgalley.
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My novel End of the Bay also features an odd assortment of characters about to lose their coastal properties to the sea.