A Book for Margaret Kennedy Day: The Oracles (1955)

Margaret Kennedy’s twelfth novel is dark and clever.

It is set in a small town close to the Bristol Channel, not long after the war; and it spins around the family of a Bohemian artist, a more conventional young married couple with a new baby, a number of their friends and neighbours, and its catalyst is a remarkable work of art.

The story begins as an apocalyptic thunderstorm rages over the town. The residents, horribly reminded of wartime bombings, huddle in their houses; but when they look outside only one thing has changed. A huge tree near the home of abstract sculptor Conrad Swann has been struck by lightning and is split in two.

When his wife died, leaving him with three young children, the sculptor had ran away from London to the country with the wife of his agent and his oldest friend, Frank Archer. Elizabeth, the mother of twins who came along with her, had been an actress, but her beauty was faded and she was drawn to of alcohol and idleness. Ten year-old Serafina Swann was left to manage the house and the four younger children as best she could. Serafina was bright, she did her best, but the the family’s new home was beginning to decay.

The tree had been the children’s refuge, where they hid from their fathers work, which they saw as malevolent ‘artifaxes’. Imagine their horror when they saw that it had been struck, and that in his branches was a horrible new creation. Serafina took charge, hauling the strange form of distorted arms and legs and hiding it in the shed, pushing a new work of her father’s that was to be collected for an exhibition well out of the way.

Only Joe, the youngest of the children realised what it was – the remains of the chair they had used to climb into the tree – but when he shouted at it nobody seemed to be listening.

Meanwhile, Christina Pattison was happy with her new home, her new baby, and her role as the perfect housewife. She was only a little worried that her husband Dickie might feel a little left out, might be a little less than happy. She was right. Dickie hadn’t really wanted to come back to his home town after the war, but his mother had died and so he felt that he had to, for the sake of his elderly father.

Dickie, eager for new experiences and new friends, was glad to accept an invitation to a party to celebrate the completion of Conrad Swann’s latest work. Christina was reluctant. She clung to convention, she worried about the children in that most unconventional of households, and she had no taste for modern art. Dickie went to the party alone, and rolled home the next morning with a hideous hangover.

Conrad Swann had disappeared. It was said that he was going to Mexico, but Frank Archer, who had come to face his friend for the first time since he absconded, pointed out that he didn’t have the means to get very far from home at all. He was right, but that’s another story. Elizabeth wept and wailed, and Frank enlisted Dickie to keep the party going, with the help of a crate of brandy that he found in the kitchen. The supposed next artwork – actually the children’s artefax – was unveiled, and the company was astounded by the sculptor’s radical new direction.

Martha Rawson, Swann’s would be patron is eager to celebrate and promote the wonderful new work. Architect, Alan Wetherby, who bought an earlier work in unconvinced, and eventually he will uncover the truth.

While that is happening Elizabeth abandons her household, Conrad finds a new life in the country, Serafina struggles to look after herself and the younger children, and – as sides are drawn in the dispute over the new artwork – the Christina becomes more conventional and Dickie more determined to explore new possibilities.

The satire is lovely – and I was pleased that Margaret Kennedy was satirising the people rather than the art – and there is much more here to appreciate.

The plot is cleverly and elaborately constructed, and the outcomes are unexpected.

Margaret Kennedy draw her characters so well, and she is at her most clear-sighted in this book. Some are lightly sketched, others are drawn with much more detail, but all are real fallible human beings. That made it easier for me than I expected to believe this rather improbable story.

The portraits of Christina and Dickie as their marriage reached crisis point, and Christina finally realised that she had to learn to change and make compromises, was wonderful.

Serafina Swann, who was thrilled when a lady at church described her as ‘a little mother’, who had to cope somehow when the adults abandoned the children of her family, who was so worried when she thought that her next home might not have enough books, was a marvellous creation, and one my favourite Margaret Kennedy characters. I should love to spend a little more time with her, and know rather more about her future.

My disappointment with this book was that it spent a little too much time with the characters I couldn’t care for and focused a little too much on the weaknesses of the characters I liked. That meant that I couldn’t feel quite as engaged with this book as I did with many of Margaret Kennedy’s other works.

I was disappointed that neither Conrad nor Elizabeth were ever held to account for abandoning their children.

The way that the story played out made me realise why much of that had to be though.

And when I look back at this book as a whole, I realise that I found much to love and much to admire.

* * * * * *

Now, please do tell me if you’ve read  – or if you’re reading – a book for Margaret Kennedy Day.

I’ll post a round up in a few days.

And please don’t worry if you haven’t found a book or haven’t been able to read for this particular celebration  – Margaret Kennedy posts are welcome on any day of the year!

24 thoughts on “A Book for Margaret Kennedy Day: The Oracles (1955)

  1. The Oracles sound rrally good – I always like stories featuring children trying to look out for themselves. I read The Forgotten Smile which I really enjoyed. A review in a few days. Though I posted some links to other Margaret Kennedy posts today instead.


    1. I’ll look forward to your thoughts. The Oracles was interesting. and is definitely worth reading, but I’m not sure that it’s her best work, It was darker than I had expected, and maybe not the right book for me right now. The synopsis makes it sound lighter and more satirical.

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  2. I read (and enjoyed) Together and Apart, as you know. 🙂 That makes two of the three Viragos that have been sitting on my shelves for an embarassingly long time. But also this year I’ve been surprised but delighted to learn from you that she has written so many more books than I thought. I’ve enjoyed every one that I’ve read, and am grateful to have learned about her from you.

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    1. I understand your feelings. Mine were mixed too, but I liked it enough to order in other books from the library that showed me how she grew as a writer. I think you’ll be more taken with your two new books.


  3. Jane, a lovely review, and I always love how well you write about a book you had mixed feelings about! You still make it sound so interesting. I am still reading Lucy Carmichael, and enjoying it very much, after a slow start–so I posted a ‘preamble’ sort of review, to be followed up with another one when I have finished. Thanks for the Margaret Kennedy heads up. I find her work so intriguing.


    1. There is a great deal that is interesting in this book, I was just a little disappointed it didn’t click the way some of her other books did, and some of that may be the result of my reading mood and a rather misleading synopsis.


  4. I’m glad I was able to join in again this year – as you know, I read Lucy Carmichael and enjoyed it, with one or two reservations. This one sounds interesting too and I’m pleased you still found a lot to love even if it wasn’t quite as engaging as some of her others.


  5. This sounds wonderful Jane! I’ll definitely look out for it. My Margaret Kennedy post will be woefully late I’m afraid – probably early next week, but I’ll definitely be posting one – thanks for organising the day!


  6. At first I thought there was a Margaret Kennedy book I had missed, but then I realized I read this one under its American title, Act of God. I had mixed feelings about this one, the satire was darker than I expected, and I worried quite a bit about the children.


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