Unpopular Book Advent 2022 – Day 21

‘The Feast’ by Margaret Kennedy
Published in 1950. Reissued in 2022 by Faber and Faber. Buy from Hive in the UK.
This review was originally published as part of a longer piece here. More on Margaret Kennedy here.

The most recent reissue of Margaret Kennedy’s magnificent novel from 1950 really is an astonishing treasure. Set in the summer of 1947, ‘The Feast’ is a marvellous evocation of the immediate post-war period in England, filled as it is with tremendous character portraits and spare but perfectly observed period detail. Some of my very favourite reading of recent years has been from this immediate post-WW2 period, notably the crime/detective novels from the likes of E.C.R. Lorac, George Bellairs, Christianna Brand, Francis Vivian and Josephine Tey, and indeed Kennedy plays with some of the tropes of that genre in ‘The Feast’. We immediately discover, for example, that one of the characters we are about to be introduced to dies, as do several others, in a catastrophic cliff collapse that envelops a small Cornish hotel. We are told also, however, that there will be survivors, and so for the remainder of the book we are encouraged to work out who will fall into which category. Kennedy openly plays on the theme of the seven deadly sins in the book, and in many ways it’s not particularly difficult to work out which of her characters are guilty of each, and therefore will end up on the right (or wrong) side of the Act of God that we know is approaching. Despite this, ‘The Feast’ remains a riveting and thoroughly engaging read, cleverly utilising a day by day structure to build towards the denouement that we have known since page one is coming.

The characters are well drawn, with Kennedy being particularly adept at sketching out the two groups of children. These are suggested in necessarily broad and quick strokes: The Cove children feel like street urchins from a Joan Eardley painting whilst the Giffords might be descendants of some of Laura Knight’s girls in sun hats and green parasols enjoying the ‘Wind and Sun’ of the Cornish cliffs some forty years earlier. Indeed, there is a sense that the Gifford children, having been sequestered in the United States for the duration of the war, are to an extent marooned in the 1930s, cut-off from the new realities. Or that at least their mother would wish this to be so. Yet Kennedy is very good at suggesting that whilst children are clearly formed in some part by their parents’ (or indeed foster-parents) actions, they need not necessarily share the same particular character traits and outlook on life. This pulling away from the familial/parental hold is boldly portrayed by Kennedy and oddly feels extraordinarily powerful when read in a 21st Century context where it often feels that children are simultaneously cosseted and objectified to extreme degrees.

No surprise then to learn that it is through Lady Gifford that much of the lamentation about The New Order comes. She pours scorn on the Nationalisation and Welfare State policies of Atlee’s Labour government, even whilst confronted by the obvious needs of those less fortunate. Her continual pestering of her husband to move to Guernsey to avoid paying income tax feel depressingly familiar and if it makes for grim reading, it is balanced by the fact that the husband in question is determined to do no such thing. It’s a reminder that one key idea in the book is that the war has been a massive hinge point in history and that an understanding of the scale of the changes necessarily ushered in hinges too on one’s immediate experience of the hardships. Sometimes this comes uncomfortably close to drawing out the urban versus rural conflict that have been enjoyed in other books I have read this year by Vron Ware and E.C.R. Lorac. The idea sometimes suggested here is that you only really suffered if you were in London, or at the very least in a city. Rural existence must have been a breeze by comparison. Kennedy of course isn’t so dim as to allow this rupture to go un-balanced, but it’s fascinating nevertheless to see it creeping in.

So ‘The Feast’ is in many ways a tremendous spotlight illuminating the social, cultural and political sea changes occurring in post-war England but Kennedy also seems to enjoy making a point about human-kind’s ultimate ignorance in the face of nature and/or God. As the final, much anticipated catastrophe approaches, it is notable that the humans are almost entirely blind to the signs of impending doom. Animals, birds and insects flee but the humans carry on regardless, foolishly confident in their ultimate strength and security. Progress, eh?

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