Mrs. Nancy Hawkins, a war widow living in Italy, looks back on the time in the 1950s when she lived in a boarding house in South Kensington and worked as book editor at the financially floundering publishing company Ullswater and York. Her private and professional lives intersected when her neighbor Wanda, a Polish dressmaker, received a blackmail note and then a sinister phone call. When Mrs. Hawkins was fired from her job for calling author Hector Bartlett (who couldn’t write) a “pisseur de copie,” she got another job at a large firm known for hiring unusual people.
Mrs. Hawkins takes delight in freely dispensing advice, such as her no-fail rule for losing weight: always eat just half. Her mother-ish tone is very personal, very confiding. Most of the characters in this short, funny novel are weak, behaving in extremely foolish ways. Mrs. Hawkins is quick to point out these weaknesses in the people who surround her and to notice that those people are usually the most dangerous to deal with. What I love about this novel is that there’s so much hidden meaning, so much hidden with regards to human nature. The comedy in this book is subtle very English; but on the other hand, there’s a certain amount of tragedy here as well.
Also reviewed by: Reading Matters