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Muriel Spark: Reality and Dream

More messing around with what is real and what is not and what is permanent and what is not. This story is about Tom Richards, a well-respected sixty plus film director. He is married to the very wealthy Claire, though they have an”open” marriage, i.e. both have affairs with the other’s knowledge. Tom has two daughters – the beautiful Cora (his daughter with his first wife) and the far less beautiful Marigold (Claire’s daughter). At the start of the book, he was making a film, based purely on the glance of a young woman he had seen at a French campsite cooking hamburgers. However, when we first meet him, he is in hospital, having fallen from a crane and broken a hip and twelve ribs. Indeed, for the first few pages, he is drifting into and out of consciousness and, not surprisingly, behaving irrationally.

He is eventually able to go home, though he has to stay in bed, while Claire has her lover staying downstairs. And that’s when things start happening. This book is essentially about impermanence. Many of the characters either lose their job (including Tom, as the backers pull out their money after his fall) or know someone who has done so. Marriages break up with regularity. Indeed, it is impossible to keep up with them all. Ironically, the only marriage that stays is Tom’s and Claire’s though we soon lose track of who their respective lover is. Of course, Spark does all of this with her usual superb wit. While my recounting of the plot might make it seem like a soap opera, in Spark’s hands it is marvellous tragicomedy.

There are two main plot elements. The first is Tom’s film (the backers change their minds and he restarts the film.) He has an affair with his leading lady (several times) but the Hamburger Girl, as she is called, has a minor role and is very bitter about it. The plot of the film and the plot of the plot of the film get increasingly complicated as the various roles frequently shift. Of course, at the end there is a new film with Marigold playing one of the major male (yes, male) roles.

And that leads into the second plot – Marigold. Marigold is quite boring and married to an even more boring travel writer. She is investigating people who lose their jobs, with the intention of writing about them. One day, she suddenly disappears. It is clear (to us) fairly early on that she is still alive somewhere but it is not so clear to the police or the general public, who make all sorts of accusations. Eventually she turns up, disguised as a man, claiming to be doing research for a book on people who lose their jobs and have to effectively drop out and live rough. Of course, it all (sort of) turns out all right in the end but Spark has had enormous fun in the telling and in ravelling a convoluted plot and has given us great reading pleasure.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Constable