A novel about a group of people at a cliffside hotel on the Cornish coast in the days leading up to the hotel’s destruction. 1949.
I was really, really impressed with Lucy Carmichael. I ordered a copy to keep on my bookshelf; I added it to my list of all-time favorite books. And then I read The Feast.
The Feast is the best book I have ever read. Yes, I know that’s a massive statement, considering how many books I have read in my lifetime (i.e., a quantity beyond reckoning). But when I hold up The Feast and announce, “This is the best book I’ve ever read!” there’s no little knot in my stomach like I’m being unfaithful to some other, superior book. So that must mean it’s true.
Margaret Kennedy is quickly becoming my all-time favorite author. The way she put together The Feast, I’m convinced she was a literary genius of the highest possible class. Then why has no one heard of her?!
For the genius of The Feast, it’s all about the prologue. Of course, this style isn’t new to me. You know, the kind of prologue that tells you how everything will end up—except that, understandably, it leaves out the whole story. So then you make your way through the remainder of the book, storytelling chronology restored, and all the while you have this knowledge, tucked in the back of your mind, of how things are going to turn out. Unhappy ending! that knowledge usually forewarns.
The Feast begins with two clergymen discussing how to hold a funeral service for people whose bodies are not, and never can be, recovered. See, there was this hotel just outside of town, tucked between the beach and the cliffs hanging overhead. But the cliffs became unstable, and the people didn’t clear out of the hotel. Then one day the cliff collapsed, destroying everything below:
The fallen cliff had filled up the entire cove, like stones in a basin. No trace was left of the house, the little platform of land where it had stood, or of anything else that had ever been.
At this point it sounds like some kind of tragic play, doesn’t it? That kind where everyone’s dead by the final scene. Except then we learn from the priest that yes, there were survivors. He doesn’t say who; he doesn’t say how many. In the absence of much plot (the action of the novel takes place almost exclusively at the hotel), there’s a question that propels the story: who will survive, and who won’t?
The story proper begins with letters and diary entries of guests who will be vacationing at the hotel this summer. It’s 1947, so we see the residual effects of the war, like the rationing that’s still in place, tax evasion is a hot topic, and people still have falling bombs on their minds. But it’s also summer, and there are lots of young people in this story, so it’s not entirely bleak. In fact, I’d say it’s a perfect balance of, well, everything!
First there’s the proprietors, the Siddal family. The mother converted their house into a hotel so her three sons could attend good schools. She works hard, but not as much as her eldest son Gerry, a future doctor who isn’t very attractive (he has “spots” on his face). Without his contributions, neither the hotel could run, nor could his brothers receive an education. Then there’s the father, a failed lawyer/philosopher of sorts, who does absolutely nothing except deliver lectures that no one around him wants to hear.
Their guests include a middle-aged couple who don’t talk to each other. Gradually, we find out that they lost a child years ago, and each still blames the other for it. I don’t want to give away too much, but the wife of this couple undergoes a transformation in the first half of the novel, and this change—evolution, really—is truly beautiful to witness.
Two big families arrive at the hotel simultaneously. One family is wealthy, consisting of a gentleman, his invalid wife (think Lady Bertram of Mansfield Park, except a lot more conniving), and their four children, three of whom were adopted. The children are overindulged by their mother and strangers to their father. But they have each other! They even have a secret society.
These spoiled children are shocked by other big family going to stay at the hotel: a widow and her three daughters. When they meet on the train, the rich kids assume these girls are orphans. They are skinny, poorly dressed, and their mother doesn’t seem to care much about them. We see that this widowed mother is quite a nasty piece of work. Eventually we get inside the head of the eldest daughter:
She did not love her mother. None of them did, nor had it ever occurred to them that they ought to do so. She had never asked for their affection. But neither did they criticize or rebel against her. She pervaded and ruled their lives like some unpropitious climate, and they accepted her rule as inevitable, evading its harshness by instinct rather than by reason. For she only dominated their outward and material existences; over their minds she had no sway. She never invaded their imaginations or attempted to impart to them any ideas. The very aridity of her character had been their salvation. Nothing of importance had ever been said to them in their mother’s voice and many characters in their favorite books were more real to them than she was. They seldom thought about her.
I loved these three girls. I loved that they act as a unit and loyally attach themselves to the four rich children. In fact, I think the antics of the children was my favorite part of The Feast. If the story had only consisted of the adult storyline, the book would have suffered severely. The children are not only a great source of humor, but they give meaning to a world otherwise full of jaded, disappointed adults.
Other cast members (because, yes, this book would make a wonderful play/movie!) include two members of staff: a young maid Nancibel, who’s recently been disappointed in love, and Miss Ellis, a very bitter woman who I suppose could be called a housekeeper as well, except she doesn’t actually do any work. Countless times I wanted to wring Miss Ellis’s neck, but I also laughed whenever her devious plots were foiled by the extremely sensible Nancibel. Nancibel reminded me in many ways of the sensible Lucy and Melissa in Lucy Carmichael. I love sensible young women! For instance, Nancibel has this great conversation with one of the spoiled kids:
‘What I want,’ said Hebe, ‘is to die. Then everybody would be sorry.’
‘Not so sorry as you think. They’d get over it after a while and you’d still be dead.’
The hotel acquires more guests unintentionally: an aggressive canon and his possibly deranged daughter, and an authoress/former friend of Mr. Siddal, along with her young chauffeur. In all, it’s quite a large cast to keep track of. I had to stop and ask myself “who?” a couple of times. But it’s absolutely worth it. Because, as the story nears its end, you’ve figured out who will likely be in the hotel when the cliff comes down, and who will likely be spared. Amazingly, for a story that ends in death and destruction, it’s a really wonderful ending! And I liked it, because I’m like Nancibel:
‘…I’m afraid I don’t like miserable books.’
‘What kinds of books do you like?’
‘I like books about nice people. And a story where it all comes out right in the end.’