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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The Ballad of Peckham Rye

by
Muriel Spark


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Ballad of Peckham Rye



Title: The Ballad of Peckham Rye
Author: Muriel Spark
Genre: Novel
Written: 1960
Length: 143 pages
Availability: The Ballad of Peckham Rye - US
The Ballad of Peckham Rye - UK
The Ballad of Peckham Rye - Canada
The Ballad of Peckham Rye - India
L'Ingénieur culturel - France
Die Ballade von Peckham Rye - Deutschland
La ballata di Peckham Rye - Italia
  • The Penguin Classics edition has an Introduction by William Boyd

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Our Assessment:

B+ : odd fun, of distinctively Sparkian sort

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/8/1960 Gerald Sykes
Sunday Times . 6/3/1960 John Metcalf
The Times . 3/3/1960 .
TLS . 4/3/1960 Kay Dick


  From the Reviews:
  • "The wackiness is cumulative, the style dead-pan and blow-by-blow, and above all no overt attempt is ever made to get a laugh. (...) Miss Spark is not protesting against anything, or championing anything either. Her novel is plainly written to sell -- and to avoid controversies that might hamper sales. It is untroubled by exceptional courage or intelligence or sensibility or beauty of language, but it does contain dialogue that seems authentic and fresh." - Gerald Sykes, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The idea of the wise madman has always been a good one; but somehow this time Miss Spark hasn't found it right for her own very individual talent." - John Metcalf, Sunday Times

  • "Beneath its darkly gleaming surface her novel suggests a good deal." - The Times

  • "In fact, the perfection of this shorter novel challenges that convention which stigmatizes as "slight" fiction pruned of extraneous length. (...) This Ballad triumphs because it makes no concessions" - Kay Dick, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Ballad of Peckham Rye begins with the fallout of a failed wedding (the groom walked out at the altar) -- and the observation by one of the locals: "It wouldn't have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn't come here". Most of the rest of the novel then looks back at what led up to these events, chronicling Dougal Douglas' arrival in London's Peckham Rye and the havoc he wreaked.
       Recent university graduate Dougal interviewed for a position at a local firm and was hired. It's a new position, nominally under the Personnel Manager -- but already at the interview Dougal is told: "you should largely work on your own and find your own level". Sounds good to Dougal, who talks a good game but rarely shows up at work (and eventually even takes a similar position at a nearby competing firm). Given that one of the things he's charged with is trying to help lessen the chronically high absenteeism rates, it's no surprise that things don't quite work out.
       Dougal is, indeed, arguably a satyr -- or the devil himself -- in disguise: he has two nubs on his head, the last traces of the plastic surgery that removed the two goat-like horns he says he had. Some defend him -- "He's got no harm in him. He's just different" -- but others see that he's a bad influence. Dixie, the girl who will be left at the altar, disapprovingly tells her fiancé: "He's putting ideas in your head" -- and, of course, she's not wrong.
       Dougal does have his own ideas, and pursues his own interests over anyone else's; when he offers advice -- as he freely does -- it feels like he's toying with them. Of course, a lot of these folks have issues that they should deal with, from boss Mr. Druce, who hasn't spoken with his wife in nearly five years (they communicate, when necessary, by writing notes) and has been having an affair with the head of the typing pool, to Dougal's fellow boarder Humphrey, lugging up fiancée Dixie on his back so as not to be caught by the landlady when he brings her home for the night. Dixie's thirteen-year-old brother, meanwhile, proves to be an expert blackmailer -- an activity that helps also to sow more confusion. Needless to say, things do not go well: readers are already aware that Humphrey and Dixie crash at the altar, and Mr. Druce snaps even more spectacularly.
       Dougal has some issues of his own, from being dumped by his own girlfriend to the memoir he is ghost-writing, integrating much of what he picks up in Peckham. As he explains to the woman who hired him:

If you only want to write a straight autobiography you should have got a straight ghost. I'm crooked.
       The Ballad of Peckham Rye is distinctly odd, especially in how the story unfolds. There's a remarkable restraint here: most comic writers would try to milk many of these scenes much more, but Spark just glides over the heaping of absurdities. It's fun but also disturbing, a local universe completely unbalanced -- or simply revealed in its absurdity by this outsider who manages to grate at everyone's essence so easily.
       Peculiar stuff, all of it, but with a strange appeal too.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 March 2014

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Links:

The Ballad of Peckham Rye: Reviews: Muriel Spark: Other books by Muriel Spark under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Muriel Spark lived 1918 to 2006.

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© 2014 the complete review

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