The Forgotten Smile by Margaret Kennedy

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

The Ladies of Lyndon, Margaret Kennedy’s first novel, was published in 1923, while the one which followed in 1924 – The Constant Nymph – was an enormous bestseller, and made her a name across the world. That name was a little down-at-heel (The Constant Nymph was not considered an entirely respectable novel) but these two books continued to sell, and are amongst those that Vintage have just reissued with the beautiful covers which Vintage can always be relied upon to provide. But the one I’ve chosen to review is actually Kennedy’s last – The Forgotten Smile, published in 1961.

The title makes it sound like a wan romance, but it is anything but. That is, unless you count the romance that can be caused by an island. For it is the Greek island of Keritha, unvisited by tourists and maintaining many ancient traditions, that casts its spell over various people who encounter it – albeit leaving some entirely unimpressed.

“Oh well, it’s such a little place. Nobody ever came here. So it’s always stayed pretty much the same.”

“History must have washed up a thing or two from time to time. Obols… Christianity… and Coco-Cola…”

“Yes. But only like things washed up on a high-tide line. A few more each century. It never washed all over Keritha, quite blotting out the past. The people took anything that came along and added it to what they’d got. They never scrapped anything.”

The novel starts with Dr Challoner going to visit Keritha in the wake of his uncle’s death, and bumping into an old classics pupil of his, Selwyn Potter. Dr Challoner is rude, arrogant, and dismissive of every single field of knowledge that is not ancient Greek poetry. He can’t even speak modern Greek, and requires Selwyn to translate for him; not that he is anxious to reacquaint himself with Potter, whom he remembers as an unappealing dullard. Once on the island, we (and they) meet Kate – a housewife who came to the island on a cruise, serendipitously bumped into old friends (including Dr Challoner’s uncle), and decided to stay. Such is the outset of the novel.

One of the unexpectedly appealing things about The Forgotten Smile is the way that Kennedy plays with structure. It feels a bit as though the novel were a jigsaw puzzle that had fallen apart and been haphazardly reassembled, as the sections of the story are not given in either a linear order or any particularly logical one. It shouldn’t work, but it does. We are introduced to Kate, and then, later, dart back to see the mood she was in when she decided to go on the cruise – annoyed with her almost-but-not-quite-unfaithful husband and pestering children; a woman not unlike Lady Slane of Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent. Later still we see Kate return from the island, under a circumstance I shan’t detail but which is brilliantly inventive and amusing, knowing that she will return, so that the novel can get to the place where it started (if you see what I mean).

Interwoven with this storyline is the history of Selwyn Potter – so the reader gradually assembles a picture of what has made him the man he has become, bumbling, awkward, and distrait as he is. Both Kate and Selwyn emerge as complex, empathetic, and engaging characters. If Dr Challoner does not, that is perhaps because we see relatively little of his past, and he perforce can only act as representation of stuffy, competitive academia.

This higgledy-piggledy structure has the capacity to irritate, but I thought it worked brilliantly. It’s greatest effect, though, is the way in which it heightens the reader’s feelings towards the island. By giving us scenes there, and then dragging us back to London or a country house party (where Kate and Selwyn, in their respective lives, are much less content), Kennedy enhances Keritha as a paradisiacal escape. While the scenes in England are equally well-written, and often very tense or emotionally revealing, it is Keritha which is the continual pull.

And that forgotten smile? It is explained in a letter:

I believe that is why our ancestors, who never supposed themselves destined for felicity, have left so many memorials, in this part of the world, to human happiness and to the spectacle of men rejoicing. In the earliest sculpture they are smiling. It is this forgotten smile, sometimes called ‘mysterious’, which I have sometimes seen on Keritha. We have preserved it because, in the eyes of the world, for many centuries, there has been nothing of note to be sought on our island. 

Islands in fiction have been mysterious and magical locations since Shakespeare’s The Tempest; since Thomas More’s Utopia. It would be going over the top to put Keritha and The Forgotten Smile at the same level of immortality, but there is undoubtedly something magical about this novel. Not in an Enchanted April sense of idyllic panacea (for it is not, ultimately, that) but in the sense that Kennedy has created an evocative, moving, and – somehow – transfixing location, and peopled it with fascinating characters.

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Simon Thomas is one of the Shiny New Books editors.

Margaret Kennedy, The Forgotten Smile (London, Vintage, 1961 repr.2014) 978-0099595496, paperback, 288pp.

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