Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

Cover of a 1969 reprint. This one is pretty much perfect.

So, how is everyone's summer reading going? Anyone in the mood for a beach read that turns out to be full of death and destruction? The Feast by Margaret Kennedy was reprinted last summer and WOW. I put it on my Christmas list last year and saved it to read until this summer. If you're looking for a summer read that packs a real punch, this is it. 

Published in 1949, this is basically a morality tale that tells you upfront that people are going to die -- this is NOT a spoiler, it's the setup. The book begins a prologue: the annual meeting of two friends, a minister in Cornwall and his summer visitor (they're hardly in the book, so their names are not really important). They normally begin the visit with an evening of chess, but the host needs to put off their game in order to finish a sermon for the following day -- a eulogy for a group of people who tragically perished when a cliff collapses on top of a summer resort, leaving nothing but a massive pile of rubble. 
However, we do know that there were some survivors among the resort's guests -- but who? 

The copy of my edition.
Nice, but I don't think it really reflects the setting of the book. 

The book then jumps back seven days and describes the final week of the resort and its inhabitants. Set in 1947, the Siddal family are struggling to make ends meet in their ancestral home on the Cornish coast and have converted it to a boarding house, not so much a hotel. Mrs. Siddal is trying to make a go of it but her husband has mentally checked out and doesn't lift a finger, hiding in a room under the stairs. Her three grown sons help but are ready to leave the nest. There are also some servants including Miss Ellis, a snobbish, gossipy housekeeper and Nancibel, the loyal housemaid. Then there are the guests, including two families, the wealthy Gifford family with four children; the Coves, with three; an unhappy couple, the Paleys, who are grieving for their dead daughter; plus an obnoxious clergyman, his put-upon daughter Evangeline; and a late arrival, a bestselling author and her chauffeur. It's almost like an Agatha Christie novel, but instead of a murder, it's a natural disaster, and the reader has to work out who will live and who will die. 

The original 1949 cover. Good, but I like the 1969 cover better. 

This book took a bit for me to get into, but after the first few pages, I was hooked. It's divided up by the seven days of the final week for the resort, and each has many short sections (too short to really call chapters) covering the many characters in the book. And there are a LOT of characters, more than twenty. Some of the children are really minor characters, but it didn't take long to keep everyone straight. They're mostly really well developed and the plot got me completely engrossed, so I was able to speed through it quickly -- it's more than 400 pages long, and the last day I read almost the last hundred pages in a single sitting. It is THAT GOOD. 

A French edition from 1956

Towards the end I began to have a terrible sense of foreboding -- of course the reader already knows that disaster is looming but there is a lot of foreshadowing. I absolutely had favorite characters and I was dreading the end because I'm always worried if someone I like will be killed off. If you want hints about the plot and the outcome, feel free to read the introduction which gives some very strong hints. I have given up reading introductions because of spoilers so I was blown away by the ending. I am glad that I did go back and read it because there was some subtext that I had definitely missed. 

A new French reprint. Good, but a little too cheerful for what's inside the book.

This is an absolutely brilliant book and I know it will be one of my top reads of the summer, if not the entire year. I've only read one other book by Margaret Kennedy, Troy Chimneys, which is also good but very different from this one. Several of her other books are still in print including her other most famous book, The Constant Nymph, which I also own and will definitely move up on the to-read pile. 

I'm counting this as my Classic Set In A Place You'd Like To Visit for the Back to the Classics Challenge. It's also the first read for my Big Book Summer Reading Challenge.


  1. I loved this one too - it was one of my books of the year a few years ago! Like you, I was worried that my favourite characters weren't going to survive and was kept in suspense until the end. I also really enjoyed Troy Chimneys and I liked The Constant Nymph and Lucy Carmichael, although not quite as much. I must read more of Margaret Kennedy's books!

  2. If I'd read the introduction I think I would have known, so I'm really glad I didn't. It all made sense but I was really tense reading up until the very end.

  3. Congratulations on finishing your first Big Book for the 2022 Big Book Summer Challenge! I've never heard of this book, but it sounds really good. Thanks for the review!

    2022 Big Book Summer Challenge

  4. Thanks for the tip - I'll save it for our summer months :-)


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