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Category: Contemporary
Date Published: October 31, 2006
Number of Pages: 192
Print Price: $13.95
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One of the reasons why retirement seems such an attractive option is because I will then be able to work my way through the novels of Charles Dickens. Unfortunately retirement is still many years off and so I comfort myself with the thought that I can at least work my way through the novels of Muriel Spark in the meantime. Similarly prolific - she wrote 22 novels - Spark was more inclined to say what she had to say in 150, rather than 450 or 550, pages which gives even the busiest of readers the chance to rattle through her wonderful books.

The most well-known of Spark's novels in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie but she does not deserve to be remembered as a one-book wonder. She was, in fact, one of the most innovative and quirky novelists of the 20th Century. However, perhaps more than any other novelist of her age, she suffered from her determination not to be labelled. Writing about everything from desert island castaways to convents, from Lord Lucan to finishing schools, Spark always kept her readers guessing about what was coming next.

This same variety can be seen within individual novels too. Symposium, for example, is part comedy, part tragedy, part murder-mystery and part philosophical entertainment. There are sections, such as the chapter that deals with the sometimes foulmouthed, Marxist, Anglican nuns of the convent of Mary of Good Hope, which are sheer comic genius and there are others which dwell, more disturbingly, on the nature of evil.

The plot revolves around a dinner party in a fashionable part of London - part of the joke is that the classical symposium has been reduced to this - but the reader is left guessing for much of the book about which of the various guests and servants are really important. Only gradually does it become apparent that murder is afoot and only gradually does the narrator focus on one of the guests in particular, though it remains far from certain how much responsibility even this character has for any of the deaths and disappearances that soon litter the narrative.

In fact, what we discover the more we read is that Spark is playing with us. Just as her characters struggle to explain the deaths, so too do we struggle to piece together the clues we have been given. As in so many of Spark's novels, the relationship between the omniscient narrator and the characters mimics the relationship between God and his creatures. There is free will but the characters often fail to realise either how free they are or in what ways their freedom is bound up in the greater freedom of the novelist herself.

This is a novel in which issues of guilt, responsibility, madness and predestination are raised, played around with, and then (apparently) discarded. Most of the murders remain unsolved and the would-be murderer is thwarted by more efficient criminals who get there before she does. All this makes Symposium sound heavy-going but nothing could be further from the truth. The pace is fast, the dialogue witty and the comedy sure-footed. This is a novel to enjoy and the good news is that there are plenty more novels where this one came from.

ISBN-13: 978-0811216593
Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 7.9 inches

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Roy Peachey is an English teacher in Cambridge, UK. His first degree was in Modern History from Oxford University and he then went on to take an English degree with the Open University and an MA in Chinese Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His interests range from Chinese literature to Old English, from Children’s Literature to Contemporary Fiction. Roy has written articles for a number of Catholic publications including the Catholic Herald.

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