I might describe The Feast, Margaret Kennedy’s ninth novel in many ways: a character study, a morality tale, a social comedy, an allegory. But, above all of that, I would describe it as very readable novel.
The setting is a cliff-top hotel on the north coast of Cornwall, not long after the war. It is a hotel that will be destroyed when the edge of the cliff crumbles. These things happen: there’s coastal erosion, and in this case there was a washed-up mine too. I knew all of this because two clergymen, meeting for their annual holiday, told me so in the prologue.
And so this is the story of the last seven days of the hotel at Pendizack Point.
There’s not much plot, but the story is driven very well by the disparate band of characters: visitors, hoteliers, and locals.
Mr and Mrs Siddal are the proprietors, and she’s nearly worn out trying to keep things going, because her husband is bone idle. She couldn’t manage without her boys, but they’re grown now, and ready to strike out on their own once the season is over. They do have a housekeeper, an impoverished gentlewoman, but Miss Ellis is a terrible snob, a vicious gossip and very selective about what she will and will not do. But they also have Nanciblel, who comes in daily from the village, and is a lovely girl, a real treasure.
Lady Gifford had sent very details before she arrived with her husband and her four children in tow. She was in poor health, the kind of poor health that required comfort, fine food, attention, and having everything her own way. Mrs Cove had no time for such things. She had lived through the blitz, she had kept her three children by her side, and now she was going to give them a good holiday. She presented herself as a paragon, but she was quite the opposite, and before the week was over she would reveal her true colours.
And then there was a quiet couple who had survived a terrible tragedy; a militant clergyman and his downtrodden daughter; and a hack novelist, accompanied by her very sociable secretary.
Margaret Kennedy had a wonderful talent for presenting characters simply, clearly, objectively, just showing them and leaving you to draw your own conclusions. She does that perfectly here, slowly revealing details and true natures, and her style and the ideas she is exploring in this book work together beautifully.
I loved the way that Lady Gifford and Mrs Cove were both revealed as monsters.
So much happened n in those seven days: two romances develop, a theft is uncovered, two daughters defy a parent for the first time, a dramatic intervention in at mass in the village church, the ground shifts in more than one marriage, a secret society recruits new members …
Margaret Kennedy understood the time, the place, and the people, and she handled everything – from the big dramatic scenes to the small but significant moments – with aplomb.
Everything was significant, everything worked together beautifully, and I found much to appreciate.
Most of all, I was caught up with the characters; loving some, infuriated by others, wishing and hoping for so many things.
On the seventh day … there was a feast!
The Cove children had dreamed of a feast, and some of the adults, who had seen how good they were and how dreadful their mother was took it upon themselves to organise one. It would be the grandest beach party you could imagine. There would be food, drink, balloons, fancy dress, and the Coves were so lovely that they invited absolutely everybody. Though, of course, not everybody came.
They were having a lovely, lovely time.
And then the cliff crumbled.
There were fatalities and there would be survivors.
But that was the end …