The Ballad of Peckham Rye: My First Experience with Muriel Spark

This is my first Muriel Spark book (thanks to Grant at 1st Reading for giving me the nudge to try her) and I knew from these opening sentences that I would enjoy her writing very much:

‘Get away from here, you dirty swine,’ she said.

‘There’s a dirty swine in every man,’ he said.

‘Showing your face round here again,’ she said.

The “he” is Humphrey, who has recently jilted his bride-to-be, Dixie, at the altar and the “she” is Dixie’s mother.  Spark’s narrative is full of surprises, the first, and most obvious of which, is that the author begins her story at the end.  My impression after reading the first page was poor Dixie, what an awful thing to happen to her.  But over the course of the next 140 pages Spark convinces me that Humphrey probably made the right decision.  Men might have something of the dirty swine in them, but the ladies don’t fair much better in this humorous and strange book.

Dougal Douglas, the new guy in town, is blamed not only for the failed wedding, but also for the other mayhem that has recently broken out in town—fighting, absenteeism at the local textile factory, and even murder.  He keeps showing everyone that he used to have two horns on his head that were surgically removed and so many people believe that he is, physically and mentally, a devil.  Although Dougal is shrewd and quirky, his intentions are not really evil.  And, unlike everyone else in Peckham, he is rather forthcoming about his greatest weakness—he can’t stand any type of sickness.  At the first sign of a disease he will flee as fast as he possibly can.

The two subplots in the text that entertained and intrigued me the most were those that involved Mr. Druce, a manager at the local factory and Dixie’s thirteen year-old brother, Leslie.  Mr. Druce is in a rather unhappy marriage of twenty years and is having a an affair with the head of the typing pool.  When Dougal questions Druce about his reasons for staying in the marriage, it seems that the wife has some sort of secret that she is holding over her husband.  And what is even more interesting is that the pair having spoken in a few years, only communicating through notes.  Mr. Druce and his odd behavior keep the tension building in this bizarre narrative right up to the final page.

Leslie, at first, seems like a typical, sulky teenager who is withdrawn from his family.  But as the story goes on we learn that this boy has a much more sinister side and is involved with gangs, blackmail and roughing up old ladies.  His parents argue over his upbringing, or lack thereof; his father thinks that since he works all day that the responsibility of childrearing falls on the maternal parent and his mother thinks that his father ought to take more of an interest in his son’s life.  So the result of this parental stalemate is a wild boy who tortures his sister and his neighbors and never suffers any consequences for his bad behavior.

This was just the perfect book to enjoy poolside on a hot Sunday afternoon.  I look forward to reading more of Spark over my summer holidays.  I have Open to the Public, The Mandelbaum Gate and Memento Mori sitting on my TBR piles.  Please let me know what other books of hers you would also recommend.


Filed under Classics

18 responses to “The Ballad of Peckham Rye: My First Experience with Muriel Spark

  1. “The Public Image” & “Loitering With Intent” are her two that we’re shortlisted for the Booker Prize, both great reads & im proud to say I have 1st edition hardbacks of each.

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  2. Basically, every Spark I’ve read has been strange and wonderful. Memento Mori is really quite dark!


  3. So lovely to see you reading and enjoying Muriel Spark in her centenary year. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of her style, but I think I’m getting there now. Memento Mori is excellent, probably my favourite so far.

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  4. So glad you enjoyed your first Spark novel. I liked this one a little less than some of the others.

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  5. I don’t know this one but I’ve read three others by her. Two I enjoyed, the last one was a bit of a dud (The Comforters)

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  6. Yay that you love Spark too now! Of the ones you’ve got, I think Memento Mori is extraordinary and great. Otherwise, Loitering With Intent is my favourite.

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  7. You’ll certainly have to read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, a fantastic novel. I also liked “Girls of Slender Means” and “Public Image” very much, but the one about Miss Brodie is still my favourite.

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  8. Since it hasn’t been mentioned, I’d recommend The Driver’s Seat. I love the way Spark begins Ballad with what seems like the dramatic conclusion, but it is neither the climactic action, nor the conclusion to that particular plot-line!

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  9. Supriya Guha

    I’ve been re-reading her novels too (I first read some as a student in Delhi forty years ago) and they’re even better than I remembered. I think I most enjoyed Girls of Slender Means, with its conjuring of England in 1945. But I’d put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and A Far Cry from Kensington in my Top Three.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. graham2221

    Just finished reading this strange and unsettling, yet pretty hilarious, novel of Spark’s.
    I would recommend The Driver’s Seat for more dark and disturbing wanders through the twisted paths of Spark’s incredible mind….
    Reminds me a bit of Leonard Cohen: tragic, dark, weirdly humane and just plain funny.

    Liked by 1 person

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