Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns

3.5 stars3.5/5

It was Stuck in a Book’s Simon who introduced me properly to quirky Barbara Comyns when I joined in the readalong for The Vet’s Daughter (my 5/5 review of which can be found here).

Virago Modern Classics, 1983 edition, 224 pages - Christmas Gift.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is quite a different book, but with the same off-beat writing style and while the main character is named Sophia, it is also quite clearly autobiographical in nature.

The blurb on the book aptly sums up what could be described as the theme of the book – “marry in haste, repent at leisure”. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the story of a young woman Sophia, who at twenty-one marries an artist named Charles. They barely have a penny to rub together and much to the dismay of their family and their own, Sophia becomes pregnant almost immediately. The couple live a bohemian lifestyle in 1930’s London on a very limited income from Sophia’s odd-jobs. Charles is more concerned with painting than providing for his young family and while there are moments of happiness at the start of the novel, life becomes harder and harder for them.

Because the novel is written from Sophia’s perspective, we never really understand Charles that well. He seems feckless and at times downright cruel, but his actions seemed to be mainly due to immaturity more than anything else, which unfortunately at times results in quite tragic moments. In many ways though, Sophia seems quite accepting of Charles’ failings throughout most of the book and the overall impression is one of extreme naivety on the part of both Sophia and Charles.

What I enjoyed most about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths was the authors unique voice. Throughout the book, Sophia speaks to the reader in such a conversational tone, it is as if you are sitting having a cup of tea together! Her tone is matter of fact, and mostly lighthearted despite the fact that there are some pretty serious moments in which she surely must have felt devastated. It is probably because her descriptions at times seem quite childlike which makes the account so poignant. For example, Sophia describes how she is treated by the hospital staff when her first child is born:

“The nurse was so angry. She said I should set a good example and that I had disgusting habits. I just felt a great longing to die and escape but instead I walked behind the disgusted nurse, all doubled up with shame and pain.”

The beauty of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the way that it captures the beautiful moments between the difficult times. One or two particular moments come to mind – like when the milkman accidentally delivers a pint of cream instead of milk “we ate everything simply smothered in cream…”, or when Sophia describes how she had brightened up their bare flat by painting all the furniture with a coat of sea green paint.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is an off-beat and bittersweet book. It’s an easy and enjoyable read while at the same time being really quite sad in parts. Like a bright splash of colour on a canvas, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, paints a vivid impression of 1930’s London through the eyes of a young woman going through turbulent times with beautiful brevity and style.

Do you like quirky books? If so what authors would you recommend?

17 responses to “Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns

  1. Nice review, Polly – this was the first Comyns I read and I wondered if I had just read it at the wrong time, since I wasn’t bowled over by it, but it looks (comparing your 7 to the 10 you gave to The Vet’s Daughter) that it just isn’t one of Comyns’ best books! I wonder why it’s the one they’ve kept in print – for my money, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead & The Vet’s Daughter are much better.

    • Thanks Simon! I think it is a good book but feels less ‘finished’ in a way – as if she’s just poured all her thoughts out on paper. If that makes sense! I’ll definitely be looking out for Who Was Changed.

  2. I’m reading ‘The Vet’s Daughter’ and the moment and so far, I love Comyns quirky style. I’m finding that she can create atmosphere, using very few words. I don’t know how the story is going to pan out, but I think that I will read more by Barbara Comyns and ‘Our Spoons Came from Woolworths’ might have to be put on my TBR list. Great review.

    • So glad you are enjoying TVD! That’s what I love about her too – the atmosphere she creates – I feel like I’m right there listening to someone in front of me.

  3. I never could find The Vets Daughter but did read this book. I thought it was so lovely, straightforward, very simple style of expression. I thought Dodie Smith came close to this style. I’ve done a review of Our spoons…. on my blog.

    • Ooh, I shall have to go over and take a look at your review to see what you thought. I hope you find a copy of the Vet’s Daughter eventually…

  4. Interesting book! It depends on your idea of “quirky”.. But judging from your review, I’ve never read anything like it! Quirky, I mean. It’s interesting. Maybe I’ll put it in my reading list too. However, I have this preconceived notion that if a book is autobiographical, it’s kinda boring. Haha. Maybe except for confessional poetry :p But I guess that’s about to change! Thank you for this review! 🙂

    • No, I’m the same as you – I don’t tend to autobiographical books at all, but this is much more like reading a story. Glad you enjoyed the review!

  5. I haven’t read anything by Comyns yet but judging by the reviews of her books it looks like I must. Especially if they are set in the 1930s!

  6. Sounds like an interesting author. I was looking up her books just now and noticed one called Sisters by a River that sounded interesting. Have you heard anything about whether it is good?

    • Hello Christy. I’ve never heard of Sisters by a River – the person to ask is Simon at Stuck in a Book who is the Comyns expert!

  7. This was the first Comyns I read and it was definitely quirky. One of the quirkiest books I have read though shares a similar title, The Brontes Went to Woolworths.

    I have a couple of other Comyns novels that I must read: A Touch of Mistletoe and The Skin-Chairs.

    • The Skin-Chairs sounds quite creepy!!! I’m definitely loving her quirky style and will be looking out for other Comyns novels.

  8. I quite liked The Vet’s Daughter. I’ll have to look for this title. I know the life described was probably very difficult, but at this point in my own life being a Bohemian artist in the 1930’s sounds like fun.

    • Yes, I do know what you mean – the romantic side of me slightly wants the bohemian lifestyle too, just without all the difficult stuff!

  9. Pingback: Novel Insights’ November Review | Novel Insights

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