On Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths
“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” With this opening line, Olga, the thirty-eight-year-old narrator of Elena Ferrante’s novel The Days of Abandonment, begins the terrifying process of appraising her life after years of ceding it to her family: to her husband, for whom she stopped her career as a writer, and to her two children, who gave her the “stink of motherhood” that she suspects, in part, led to her husband’s departure.
Olga deploys an unbridled anger toward her husband, screaming, “You wounded me, you are destroying me, and I’m supposed to speak like a good, well-brought-up wife? Fuck you!” Meanwhile, she lectures herself. “What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications, his enthusiasms, to the ever more productive course of his life.” She has enough rage and self-possession that she seduces her neighbor, a graying cellist, in a fit of sadism.
Such fiery vitriol is largely absent in Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, but it nonetheless shares DNA with Ferrante’s sharp and dark dissection of domestic breakdown. The second published novel by the British writer Barbara Comyns, it was originally released in 1950 and is being reissued this month by New York Review Books. A startling, immersive excavation of poor, young womanhood and marriage gone awry in 1930s London, it begins at the tale’s end. “I told Helen my story and she went home and cried,” Sophia Fairclough narrates, only to promptly think twice about her loquacity. “I wish I hadn’t told Helen so much; it’s brought everything back in a vivid flash. I can see Charles’s white pointed face, and hear his husky nervous voice.”
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