When Margaret Kennedy published her ninth novel The Feast in 1950 it was met with considerable fanfare. It had been more than twelve years since her last, The Midas Touch, had been released and fans of her work were desperate for more of her writing. Set in a Cornish hotel after the Second World War the reviews that the new book received then reflect the high regard with which Kennedy was held. And this only makes the fact that this book is not better known all the more mysterious.
“We, the meek, are by now accustomed to waiting for life’s good things . . . There can be few of her craft whose silence has been more felt. That Miss Kennedy now returns to her field, and us, is good news. That in ‘The Feast’ she should be at her very best is, as news, even better.”The Tatler, 22nd March 1950
And now, having read The Feast myself, devoured it if you will pardon the pun, I think I can honestly say that it is time you put this book on your summer reading list. This June Faber & Faber are releasing Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast to a new audience and I can predict that they are just going to lap it up.
Within the first few pages the reader discovers that the Pendizack Manor Hotel, which huddles in a quiet Cornish cove, has been completely destroyed, buried beneath a huge cliff fall which has entombed everyone who was unlucky enough to be inside. At first it seems strange that Kennedy would give away the punch-line so quickly, but far from spoiling the ending for me, it only heightened the tension throughout the book. You already know what is coming, it is just a matter of which of these larger than life characters is going to vanish beneath the rubble and which is going to miraculously survive – indeed will any one of them escape at all?!
“The fallen cliff had filled the entire cove. No trace was left of the house, the little platform of land where it had stood, or of anything else that had ever been there.”Maragaret Kennedy, The feast, 2021
This story didn’t come to Margaret fully formed, it was initially an idea for a short story which Kennedy had discussed with some novelist friends in 1937. They were all playing around with a plot in which the seven deadly sins were personified and how they might interact with each other. Kennedy was the only one of the group to pursue the seed of that idea and she eventually published it as a short story in the Ladies Home Journal in 1949 under the title ‘Never Look Back‘. That story was the basis for this book.
“The Feast situates the age old questions of sin, retribution and salvation against a post-war context of shortages and squabbling and this is what gives this novel such immediacy and texture.”Cathy Rentzenbrink, Introduction to The Feast, 2021
Despite the sedate, seaside setting in post-war Cornwall, this book is actually a real page turner. The short chapters add to that feeling of pace and urgency.
Unusually for me I fell in love with some of the guests and staff of the hotel very quickly and equally swiftly developed a ‘mutter-out-loud’ dislike for others. And for me this is the absolute highlight of The Feast – the characters in this book are wonderful. So fully-formed, so charismatic, so memorable. There are the Siddals, the owners of the hotel which was once their grand family home, there’s dear, generous Nancibel Thomas, the Cornish housemaid and the unbearable housekeeper, Mrs Ellis, the self-absorbed Lady Gifford (a “rare and fragile creature, like some hothouse flower”), Canon Wraxton, spitting fire and brimstone, and his poor mousy daughter, the mysterious novelist and her rather young and handsome chauffeur, Bruce, Mrs Cove and her three neglected daughters and finally Mr and Mrs Paley, who pass like shadows in their own lives.
The story is told over the course of seven days, through snippets from the characters’ letters, their diary entries and the wise, witty narrative. As the week goes on the guests’ attention is drawn to the Cove children and the collective desire to give them something they have never had, a proper treat . . . a feast!
And so a picnic is planned and everyone in the hotel is invited.
There are moments of real comedy, some of the dialogue is just so brilliantly crafted. But with each of the characters we are just waiting for them to get what they deserve – the good, the bad and the inevitable. At one point the maid Nancibel tells Bruce that she only enjoys reading novels about nice people with happy endings because she sees enough of real life everyday, but to me The Feast, with all its verisimilitude and its wonderfully flawed characters, feels like escapism. It is a fable that seems entirely modern and relevant while still inducing a wonderful nostalgia. And as the story draws closer to its conclusion, that deadly conclusion we already know is coming, the tension builds and slowly the different threads are being drawn together – some into delightfully neat bows and others into ghastly, tangled knots.
Margaret Kennedy (1896 – 1967) herself had been forced to hurriedly evacuate London during the Second World War and had made her way to Cornwall with her children. Her journal of that terrifying time in 1940 was published later under the title Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry and depicts a period of portentous fear and uncertainty. Life would never be the same again and there was an unknown, unseen enemy perpetually lurking in the shadows. Without doubt this period of Margaret’s life, and the observations she must have made of the people and places around her during that time, was the inspiration for this book.
When I was first asked to review this book I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to make of it. Sadly Margaret Kennedy wasn’t an author I was familiar with (something I now wish to change!) and this was a book first published in 1950, I was concerned that it might be a little old-fashioned, out-dated. How wrong I was, because there is one thing that never dates, never gets old – a cast of fascinating, relatable, sometimes hateable, characters with vivid personalities and diverse backgrounds, all thrown together under one roof and the chaos, love and life that inevitably ensues. This book was a joy and I was sad to finish it!
Author’s Note: I was not paid for this review, though I did receive a copy of the book.