The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry by Sylvia Murphy ~ 1983. This edition: Black Swan, 1984. Softcover. ISBN: 0-552-99094-9. 174 pages.
My rating: 9/10.
I grabbed this book on a whim during a Sally Ann sweep over a year ago. I was attracted by the intriguing cover, and when I opened the book to the middle for my standard never-heard-of-this-author-before-should-I-gamble-on-this book-30-second-random-excerpt-test it passed quite nicely.
Not quite sure why it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it. The cover blurb might be the reason – a quote from Susan Hill (which vaguely rings a bell – dark short stories? – or ???) promises “…no difficulty in laughing out loud….a new, original comic writer…tremendous fun”. I dislike being told I’m going to laugh, and in inner protest I then tend not to. ( “Take that, effusive cover copy writer!” This goes double, no, TRIPLE, for video cover blurbs. Especially foreign films. Never trust the blurb. Just saying.)
Verdict – very nice indeed. This one’s a keeper. (Though I didn’t laugh out loud. Continual appreciative smiling better describes my response. Maybe I would have laughed out loud – occasional passages are very wryly funny – but I was reading in bed next to my slumbering spouse so I tempered my behaviour accordingly.)
So – how to describe Sally Fry?
Still smiling as I try to condense the essence of this little gem of a story. In brief – here’s the scene. Sally Fry, single mother, behavioural therapist and college lecturer, is working on her PhD thesis. Hoping for a few quiet months of seclusion in her mother’s rented Cornwall cottage, her plans go quickly awry. Her troubled teenage son Sebastian disappears, leaving behind a cryptic note; a sister’s sudden operation means the arrival of Sally’s rather sweet though boisterous young niece and nephew; another sister shows up on the cottage doorstep on the run from the implosion of her marriage with a Swedish filmmaker, who himself appears shortly thereafter and proceeds to spend his time alternately spying on the household through field glasses and enjoying the generous favours of Sally’s mother’s neighbour’s wife.
The thesis does not progress. What does get done is Sally’s own quirky autobiography, written in passages triggered by alphabetical dictionary-style entries; a form of therapeutic self-expression Sally herself developed and then had scooped by her lover-at-the-time to further his own career. Oh yes, Sally has a back story, and more than a bit of baggage!
If I had the inclination (and, more to the point, the time) I could type in a few of the entries here, but as they really must be read as part of the narrative flow I’ve decided that would be pointless. (Plus the time thing.) So you need to take this on faith. Not a particularly warm and fuzzy book – Sally’s voice is too matter-of-fact and cynical for that – but it made me very, very happy. Good stuff.
I Googled Sylvia Murphy this morning, and – oh joy! – after this first novel (Sally Fry) she has a nice little collection of subsequent titles which I shall be searching down, though most appear to be out of print. I found Murphy’s personal blog, and the last postings are from 2010; she talks about the difficulties of getting published in the increasingly competitive world of mainstream books as publishers concentrate on potential mega-bestsellers versus a broader catalogue of titles. Though her first works were released by Houghton-Mifflin, it appears that she was dropped at some point; her later works are self-published and she comments that she is now looking at print-on-demand as well. Her bibliography includes several other contemporary novels, memoirs of restoring and ocean-sailing a 1930’s wooden ketch, Nyala, with her late husband, several “cat” tales, and two non-fiction works on coping with death and grieving; in her other life Sylvia Murphy is an administrator in a bereavement counselling service.
More on Sylvia Murphy in the future, I sincerely hope. She’s on my quest list as of right now. I would like to start with her 2008 novel, Candy’s Children. The description of the plot is promising: an elderly Palestinian-born Englishwoman dies in a terrorist bombing during a mysterious visit to Tel Aviv; at her funeral five of her children assemble. The catch is that none of them know that they have siblings. I’ll bite; after Sally Fry I have high hopes for Sylvia Murphy; I look forward to spending some more time in her literary company.
Sylvia Murphy. Here she is: http://www.sylviamurphy.co.uk/