Thursday, 28 July 2016

Spencer’s List by Lissa Evans



published 2002
 
 
 
Spencer's List


Iris, standing outside the library with her petition, didn’t bother to target the two men who were strolling out of the covered market and along the pavement towards her, but instead turned her attention to a studenty girl who had just crossed the road and was heading towards the post office. The three successive Saturdays that she had spent collecting signatures had turned her from a nervous rookie… to a focused assessor, skilling in predicting the exact response of a given passer-by, homing in on the keen and the weak with ruthless accuracy. She felt she could publish a leaflet on the subject.

The girl was in her early 20s and was wearing a jacket that looked vaguely ethnic. This was a good sign, as were her clumpy lace-up shoes. Other items of clothing that seemed inexplicably linked to an interest in the fate of the library were zipped-up anoraks, hats with brims (this included flat caps) and knitted scarves. It had been a chastening moment when Iris realized that she simply had to look out for people who dressed a bit like her.
 
 
commentary: On a not very cheerful day recently, I took down this book hoping for distraction, and entertainment in a re-read.

It succeeded beyond my wildest expectations: I stopped thinking about my problems and cried laughing at the scenes at the Cockney pubs* and at the surprise party. This book is hilarious, charming, clever, heart-warming – it is everything a novel should be. I think I might be Lissa Evans’ biggest fan – see entries all over the blog for proof – which is slightly embarrassing because now I know her, and I feel like a stalker fangirl. But I just am really, and we both have to accept that.

Spencer’s List was her first novel, and follows the lives of three people in London over the course of a year or so. Fran is stuck in a crumbling house in an un-cool part of London: in negative equity and sharing with her brother. Her neighbour Iris is trying to cope with her father and her teenage sons. Spencer has lost a close friend, and is supposed to be getting himself out and about again. The three wander into and out of each other’s storylines to great effect. Evans seems to be able to get under the skin of any character at all – I really don’t know how she wrote so effectively about being the mother of teenage boys when she has no such experience at all. And she has that ability to show you how irritating someone is, and then turn it round so you see them a different way. Tammy McHugh in her tartan skirts and crimson lipstick is a splendid example here. And she knows her clothes, as you can see from the excerpt above.

I think she isn’t given the credit she deserves just because she is so heart-breaking and funny at the same time. She should be on the Booker list or winning the Baileys or Costa prizes. That’s all I can say really – read her. And if you are having a bad day, then she will help you out of it. What could be a higher recommendation?

*This is the Cockney pub:
Sidling into the bar, he had witnessed a group of Japanese businessmen being taught the words to ‘Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road’ by a man dressed as a chimney sweep.
Libaries always a subject of interest on the blog (Lissa to blame there too). And the fight for libraries continues – the picture is a protest at Friern Barnet in London. You can support them here.













28 comments:

  1. Sounds like exactly the book I need at the moment. Thanks! I loved Their Finest Hour and a Half.

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    1. She's such a talented author, and this one really did the trick for me.

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  2. More you than me, loving your enthusiasm though!

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    1. You probably would like it.. but you do have enough books! Maybe if you need cheering up sometime.

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  3. Sometimes a book like this is exactly what one needs to get over a tough time, Moira. And it does sound funny. The London atmosphere sounds well done, too. Oh, and I'm sure Lissa Evans is delighted you're such a fan.

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    1. Yes, it's always good to have a few surefire spirit-raisers around, and this is one of mine. And yes, great picture of London...

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  4. 'I'm sure Lissa Evans is delighted you're such a fan.'
    Hugely!!!

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  5. This post has everything -- humour, clothes, libraries, and a great book recommendation. Thank you!

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    1. What a nice thing to say - thank YOU.

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  6. Another one to look out for. Part of the effectiveness of the best comical writing comes from the author noticing something that you absolutely know, but have never consciously realised. The 'Cockney Pub' is wonderful, but I really love the bit where she suddenly realises that she only needs to look for people dressed like her. It reminded me of the Victoria Wood playlet where the aspiring actress goes to an audition and discovers that all of the other aspiring actresses are dressed identically to her.

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    1. Yes - I love that, and am always trying to define it - it's the kind of thing that seems obvious when it's pointed out, but that doesn't take away from the cleverness of the author.

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    2. Yes, and there's a similarity to the best detective story writing. The most satisfying conclusions are those that you find yourself slapping your forhead and saying 'Of course!' because it is so obvious. As with the comic writing it's about the shock of the obvious.

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    3. Yes, it's recognition that works, in both cases...

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  7. Thanks Moira - another to add to the list as I've never read it. Cool - I could definitely do with a laugh or two these days ...

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    1. It certainly did it for me - partly because it was NOT something remote from real life or daily life or my life. It just made me laugh, and enter into these people's problems.

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  8. Susanna Tayler30 July 2016 at 19:24

    I liked Spencer's List but loved Their Finest Hour and a Half and Crooked Heart. I struggled with Odd One Out, because the portrayal of the hapless junior doctor was just too close to home - brilliantly done but brought back that awful sick scared feeling...

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    1. That's a compliment to the writing and authenticity - she's such a good writer.

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    2. Susanna Tayler31 July 2016 at 20:40

      Yes, absolutely!

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    3. btw, my copy of Juno and Juliet has arrived - it was you who recommended it I think?

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    4. Yes, that was me. I hope it doesn't disappoint.

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    5. Take the credit if I like it and refuse blame if I don't!

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  9. I think you have really convinced me this time. Of course I don't need any more books, but this one (and others you have described) sound very good.

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    1. She is such a good writer Tracy. But perhaps you would enjoy her book set in WW2, Crooked Heart?

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    2. That one did appeal especially. I will have to look for it.

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    3. I did get a copy of Crooked Heart. Per the book cover, it was the first of her novels published here. I can already tell I will like it. Don't know how soon I can get to reading it... I have a list of have to, want to, need to reads ahead of it, but it is calling to me.

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    4. Excellent news, you will love the setting.

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