Symposium / Muriel Spark
London: Houghton Mifflin, c1990.
The setting for this novel is a dinner party. Or is it? The dinner party which begins and ends the book is only the marking point for the rest of the story. Chapters begin "Three weeks before the dinner party" or "It was the first week in October, two weeks before the dinner party" etc -- tying everything in to the events which will occur, giving us a glimpse of the connections that will inexorably lead to the dinner party.
Margaret Murchie is a Scottish girl, the youngest of three, who seems to be connected to many mysterious deaths, having been in the vicinity of both accidental deaths and murders repeatedly. Even her family is afraid of her now. The Murchies also have an uncle who is mad; he lives in a hospital and is allowed out on good days. He is particularly fond of Margaret.
And on his advice, Margaret makes a plan to marry well, meaning of course to marry money. She tracks down her prey, William Damien, in the fruit department at Marks & Spencer, and is a newly married woman at the time of the dinner. William's mother Hilda is the one with all the money, though.
Ella and Ernst are a rich couple who've picked up a friend, a young man named Luke who they are both interested in. Luke is a student who works part time as a caterer for extra cash, and will be serving at the dinner party they are both attending.
Then we have Lord Suzy and his very young wife Lady Suzy, cousins Roland and Annabel, and our hosts, artist Hurley and his companion Chris.
The story explores each of these characters and their varied foibles, but centres around Margaret, and her shady past, the most. Spark's writing is crisp and unsympathetic, she uncovers the venality of motives in each individual, and seems to feel that there is an inevitability about the outcome of the story. She slips in dreadful details amongst the salmon mousse and wine.
Spark's sensibility is very English, and the skewering of social mores and social climbing is thorough. Her clever and acidic wit is in full evidence and the writing is very good. While I was a little put off by the weirdness of this book, both in plot and in feel, I'll be reading more to see what I really feel about Muriel Spark.