This beautiful book, the story of an impoverished, naive young artist in 1930s London, totally took me by surprise. At first the mishaps of newly-married Sophia and her husband Charles are funny and awkward--everything Sophia cooks tastes like soap; they paint all of their furniture sea-green; they live in terror of Charles' forbidding relatives; and they're always hard up for money. But through a masterful technique of Comyns, Sophia's wondering attitude slowly reveals as much about her (and her unconscious attempts to deflect the emotional impact of constant disappointments) as it does those around her, who benefit from exploiting her optimism and self-doubt. Some moments of the book approach psychological horror, and the happy ones (they exist!) come as a great relief.
“I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.” So begins Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. But Barbara Comyns’s beguiling novel is far from tragic, despite the harrowing ordeals its heroine endures.
Sophia is twenty-one and naïve when she marries fellow artist Charles. She seems hardly fonder of her husband than she is of her pet newt; she can’t keep house (everything she cooks tastes of soap); and she mistakes morning sickness for the aftereffects of a bad batch of strawberries. England is in the middle of the Great Depression, and the money Sophia makes from the occasional modeling gig doesn’t make up for her husband’s indifference to paying the rent. Predictably, the marriage falters; not so predictably, Sophia’s artlessness will be the very thing that turns her life around.
About the Author
Barbara Comyns (1909–1992) was born in Bidford-on-Avon, in the English county of Warwickshire, one of six children of an increasingly unsuccessful Birmingham brewer. Living on the run-down but romantic family estate and receiving her education from governesses, she began to write and illustrate stories at the age of ten. After her father’s death, she attended art school in London and married a painter, with whom she had two children she supported by trading antiques and classic cars, modeling, breeding poodles, and renovating apartments. A second marriage, to Richard Comyns Carr, who worked in the Foreign Office, took place during World War II. Comyns wrote her first book, Sisters by a River (1947), a series of sketches based on her childhood, while living in the country to escape the Blitz, which is also when she made an initial sketch for The Vet’s Daughter (available as an NYRB Classic). This, however, she put aside to complete Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950) and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954). The Vet’s Daughter was published in 1959. Among Comyns’s other books are the novels The Skin Chairs (1962) and The Juniper Tree (1985; forthcoming from NYRB Classics), and Out of the Red into the Blue (1960), a work of nonfiction about Spain, where she lived for eighteen years.
Emily Gould is the author of the essay collection And the Heart Says Whatever and the novel Friendship. She is the co-owner of Emily Books and lives in Brooklyn.
"Comyns's world is weird and wonderful ... there's also something uniquely original about her voice. Tragic, comic and completely bonkers all in one, I'd go as far as to call her something of a neglected genius." --Lucy Scholes, The Observer
"A Depression-era artist struggles with crippling poverty and sexism in bohemian London; the result is a surprisingly charming and funny novel...Much of the story revolves around issues of reproduction, housework, and economic opportunity that contemporary feminists would see as questions of justice. But Sophia narrates a story of fairy tale-like fatality, casting an amused, self-deprecating light on even the most painful moments." —Kirkus starred review
"A startling, immersive excavation of poor, young womanhood and marriage gone awry in 1930s London.” —Jane Yong Kim, BOMB magazine
“Our Spoons contains one of the best distillations of Comyns' peculiar style currently available stateside, and is essential for understanding her dark, delightful oeuvre...calculatedly meek, yet sharp enough to give you paper cuts.” —Amy Gentry, Chicago Tribune
“Her capturing of youth is so fresh and accurate that nothing is lost in the passing of decades. There is a modern sensibility at play in her women and their experiences, their attitudes and reactions towards love and sex, marriage and having children...quietly startling...Comyns’s skill is subtle and surprising...I felt both thrill and pride, and I expect as her work continues to be reissued this sense of finding a hidden gem will be shared by other readers, startled and attracted by her talent.”—Lauren Goldenberg, Music and Literature
“A curious hybrid: a mixture of domestic disaster, social commentary, comedy, and romance...What I find so really excellent in this novel, in addition to Comyns’s powers of description and the slow fuse of her comedy, is her ability to show the cold world and its indecencies without spelling everything out...Comyns is a virtuoso at portraying bad behavior...written beautifully, with dash and economy, and…truly unique in [its] eccentric black comedy, whether grotesque or ineffably subtle.” —Katherine A. Powers, The Barnes & Noble Review
"I defy anyone to read the opening pages and not to be drawn in, as I was . . . Quite simply, Comyns writes like no one else" --Maggie O'Farrell
"Comyn's voice has childlike qualities; she looks at everything in the world as though seeing it for the first time. In later books, though, her narrators' naivety is deployed in order to provoke horror; the gap between what the reader knows and the narrator doesn't serves to make the reader fascinated and fearful." --Emily Gould, The Awl