Titles are interesting things. They are one of the first things a potential reader notices about a book, and can fire up the imagination, as well as often fulfilling the obvious task of telling you what a book is about (Trams or Mushrooms of the United Kingdom). But how does one summarise an entire novel in a few, catchy words? I guess that’s why many writers opt for fairly obvious approaches: the names of major characters (e.g. Romeo and Juliet or Tintin); or of major landmarks / turning points / objects that make up the story (The Picture of Dorian Gray or The Subtle Knife). Then there are those books that at first glance appear totally randomly or purely catchy-ly named, but where the title takes on a new significance once the novel is read. Spinach Soup for the Walls would fit into this latter category.
I was therefore unsure what to expect from Lynne Harkes’ autobiography: culinary delights? A party that went pear shaped and ended in a riot? Or a novel approach to interior design?
The latter guess was closest to the mark: as you delve into this debut novel, you soon discover how much a tin of paint can change lives.
Having spent years living in various locations around the world at the whim of her husband’s company relocations, the tin of paint hand-mixed to specification in Edinburgh for their new living room in the jungles of Gabon (nicknamed ‘spinach soup’ after its colour) comes to symbolise individuality: a key theme hovering in the background throughout the novel. This is individuality both for artist Lynne and her husband, as they stamp their own colour onto the clinically white walls of the company house, and for Lynne herself, who in this remote locality realises that she has finally had enough of her role as a ‘trailing spouse’ and decides to live her own life. In taking up this theme, ‘Spinach Soup for the Walls’ narrates Harkes’ journey from personal despair to hope, and in doing so exposes the author’s inner self to the whole world. A brave move.
The novel itself is rather slow to start and initially appears rambling and a bit confusing, rather like following the uncollected yet interrelated thought processes of an elderly aunt. However, once you get into her story and sort out the chronological locations of the different countries alluded to, Harkes does succeed in catching hold of her reader. Narrated through a collection of anecdotes from the countries Harkes’ family lived in, the novel spins together its key themes of individuality, self-awareness and self-confidence, tying each personal revelation and change to the event that inspired it. In doing so, it also features several laugh-out-loud moments including the distribution of slowly defrosting venomous serpents during a safety briefing in Gabon; the tale of a neighbour cycling past resplendent in ball gown and feather boa in Nigeria; manic elephant encounters; and the frequent antics of boisterous Jack Russell Travis.
Set amidst these short stories Lynne’s own tale is slowly teased out as she develops her themes: that of a woman who gradually realises she is trapped into being someone somewhere she doesn’t want to be, not being able to live her own life, and who finally makes the decision to be herself.
Whilst readers’ patience may at times be tested with her references to spiritualist encounters and highly philosophical, preachy moments, the novel is nevertheless an interesting read. Regrettably, the flow of the narrative is jarringly disrupted time and time again by poor editing and simple errors.
Criticisms notwithstanding, Spinach Soup for the Walls offers an interesting insight into how differently people react to situations, and how even a small action by one person can have a huge impact on those around them. Credit must go to Lynne Harkes for writing such an honest account of her life and the character-shaping experiences she has gone through, thereby giving people the opportunity to learn from and grow through her story.