by Margaret Kennedy
Publication Date: January 1, 1949
Project: a century of women
Cornwall, Midsummer 1947. Pendizack Manor Hotel is buried in the rubble of a collapsed cliff. Seven guests have perished, but what brought this strange assembly together for a moonlit feast before this Act of God -- or Man? Over the week before the landslide, we meet the hotel guests in all their eccentric glory: and as friendships form and romances blossom, sins are revealed, and the cracks widen ...
Originally published in 1947, The Feast is one of those books that periodically has a resurgence when a publisher picks it up to reissue, and all of the sudden it seems like everyone I follow on GR and Twitter is reading it (A Fortnight in September, by R.C. Sherriff is another such book, and it is also sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read). Margaret Kennedy is best known for her novel The Constant Nymph, which was reissued by Virago in the 1980’s. This is my first book by her, and, I suspect, is likely to be the one I like the best, since nothing else by her appeals to me nearly so much.
To begin, this is a perfect book for the summer. I’m going through a summertime phase, where I’m looking for books that scratch that particular itch – not so much books set during summer, but books that feel like summer to me; house parties and long, hot days and warm nights and lethargy and nostalgia. This book feels like summer.
The set up is really intriguing – immediately upon beginning the book, the reader learns that an entire cliff face has collapsed on a Cornwall boarding house/small hotel and that everyone in the hotel at the time has been buried under tons upon tons of rock, where they will remain. The identity of one of the victims is shared in this section; the numbers/names of additional victims are not shared. Then the book moves backwards, to the week before the collapse, as the guests begin arriving. The remainder of the story is told day by day, through diary entries, letters and dialogue. We meet all of the characters: seven children in two families, the owners of the hotel, their children and employees; the adults guests, and some of the local inhabitants of the village.
There are only a few characters who are even remotely likeable, most of them are on a spectrum between meh and irredeemably horrible. Secrets, especially among the adults, abound. Nonetheless, the book is extremely engaging, and the pace of my reading increased as I got closer to the end, waiting for the disaster and for the identity of the dead to be revealed.
There is an element of parable going on in the book, that I’m not going to talk about in detail because I don’t want to spoil, but which has to do with various characters representing each of the seven deadly sins. It’s quite a neat little concept.
The ending is abrupt, but I suppose that an entire cliff falling on a hotel and crushing a bunch of people beneath tons of rubble is also abrupt.