Saturday, May 31, 2008

book review - The Ballad of Peckham Rye


On the face of it this is a story of what happens when a bit of devilry enters the lives of ordinary people. But Muriel Spark is also using this often humorous book to tackle other issues.

One of them is the sense of place with this being a Peckham that is almost totally unrecognisable from today. Not because of the reasons you might think but because in this book it is an area in London that supports two factories and their respective communities. It is because this is such a close-knit community that the arrival of someone out of the ordinary can have such an impact.

Then there is the sense of traditional. The main character Dougal Douglas is quirky because he refuses to adhere to social convention, which means being silent about indiscretions. He manages to do very little work but spend his time unravelling the paranoia’s and jealousies of those around him with in some cases devastating effect. He is also prepared to cry publicly, be far too informal and discuss sexual matters in a very carefree manner. It is almost like a herald of the free thinking sixties to the population of the 1950s. That is one major cause of a feeling of unease.

But the other comes from the key theme is the idea of someone being sent from the devil to cause havoc. In the same way that Mr Pye shakes-up the community of Sark in Mervyn Peake’s book Douglas here claims at one point to have horns. He confesses to being the devil and certainly in some cases he causes grief. One of his associates has a breakdown, the other in a jealous rage murders his mistress and in the case of the local hard man Trevor he drives him to distraction by taunting him with threats of fights on the Rye.

There are funny moments, because the way Douglas impacts people is through humour and oddness, and these make an otherwise uncomfortable read much more pleasurable. At the end as Douglas flees Peckham leaving his landlady suffering a stroke and Trevor the hard man swinging for him the sense of damage to the community is palpable. But as Spark makes clear in the closing pages things revert back to normal and the madness that was Douglas becomes part of Peckham folklore.

In that sense it could be an allegory for the madness of the war and the resilience of Londoners able to carry on after the destruction of the blitz. But it is more of a personal story a modern day Jekyll and Hyde inviting the reader to ponder the reactions of the characters Douglas churns up and to wonder what they might be capable of if provoked by a devilish acquaintance like Douglas.

Version read – Penguin paperback

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