Category Archives: Bainbridge, Beryl

It’s a Wrap: 2016

Back once more to my best-of year list in no particular order.

War Crimes for the Home: Liz Jensen. Irreverent, darkly funny, a tale of poisonous sibling rivalry during WWII.

The Stranger Next Door: Amélie Nothomb. So you’ve retired and want to move to a quiet life in the country? Think again.

The Flight: Gaito Gazdanov. Trying to escape fate never works.

The Ted Dreams: Fay Weldon. What can I say? Fay Weldon is a GODDESS.

All Things Cease to Appear: Elizabeth Brundage. Who says crime fiction can’t be literary? A haunting novel of crimes, decades apart, that take place in the same house.

Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea: Teffi. I can’t say that I wish I’d lived through the Russian Revolution, but Teffi’s memories bring some powerful experiences to life.

Siracusa: Delia Ephron. Two unhappily married couples and one precocious child on holiday in Italy. What can go wrong?

The Wicked Go to Hell: Frédéric Dard. Three Dard books from Pushkin Vertigo this year, and this was my favourite.

Bye-Bye Blondie: Virginie Despentes. Who can resist a Kamikaze woman?

The Moving Toyshop: Edmund Crispin. Funny and fast moving, the best of all the Golden Age mysteries I read this year.

Sweet William: Beryl Bainbridge. William could give Casanova a run for his money.

Willful Disregard:Lena Andersson. Obsession and delusion in a relationship break-up.

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Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, Brundage Elizabeth, Crispin Edmund, Dard Frédéric, Ephron Delia, Fiction, Gazdanov Gaito, Jensen Liz, Nothomb Amélie, Teffi, Weldon, Fay

Sweet William: Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge’s darkly comic novel Sweet William is the story of the sentimental education of a young woman named Ann who lives in London and works for the BBC.  The novel opens with Ann saying goodbye to her stuffy fiancé, Gerald. He’s leaving for a university position in America, and although Ann and Gerald lived together in London, he’s decided that it would not be appropriate to have Ann join him. He’s promised to ‘send for’ her though, and he’s fobbing her off with excuses while she resents him for his lack of commitment. Entwined with Ann’s resentment is the uncertainty of the engagement to a man she doesn’t know well. Ann is feeling a bit lost when she meets William McClusky, a blonde, curly-haired playwright, a chronic philanderer, who invades and then takes over her life, persuading her to give up her job and enter into some slippery domestic arrangement with him:

In ten days she had encouraged adultery, committed a breach of promise, given up her job, abetted an abortion. She had not been aware, throughout these happenings, of any unease of distress. She had become like one of those insect specimens under glass, sucked dry of her old internal organs, pumped full and firm with an unknown preservative. She was transfixed by William. 

William, at least initially, appears to be an attentive, caring man, railing at Ann’s lack of ring on her finger, asking if her fiancé is unemployed (and thus can’t afford a ring) while he states, the very first day he meets Ann:

‘If you were my woman,’ he said, ‘You’d have a ring for your finger.’

Amidst a few gentle protests that she’s an engaged woman, Ann passively accepts William’s ardent, urgent attentions. William stakes out his claim in Ann’s life like an explorer marking his territory with the arrival of a television set so she can watch him on a talk show.

sweet-william

This book could so easily have been a tragedy but in Bainbridge’s hands a terrible comedy ensues as William’s many lives, countless lies and his innumerable women gradually, and messily tumble out of the closet. He’s married (still) and there’s a violent divorce somewhere in his past, but his present is also peppered with women, a fluctuating sea of women, some of whom are known to Ann, and some of whom are his most ardent supporters and defenders. Ann’s life disintegrates into chaos as William comes and goes, leaves her pregnant, he pops back, floats away, and makes promises which he rarely keeps.

“I’ve never,” he said, ‘felt like this about anyone. You’ll just have to believe me. I do have compartments  to my life, I can’t deny that, but I’ve never loved anyone like this before.’ He looked at her smooth face, the small wanton mouth, the gullible eyes that watched him greedily.

Later Ann asks herself, “what kind of compartments did he mean–air-tight ones or the sort on railway trains? Was she locked away on her own, or was he in the compartment with her?” Many of the things William says with such intensity sound good at the time, especially to the innocent Ann, and it can be argued that William, a rather nebulous figure, could mean what he says at the time he says it, or he could just be a heartless, serial adulterer. He says he visits the children from his ex-wife to read them bedtime stories every night, but when he’s caught in a lie, the story shifts to his obligations to his current wife:

‘she doesn’t want to be done out of cooking for me. Who am I to deny her that?’

He bent his head humbly. There was a flaw in his argument, she knew, but she couldn’t put it into words.

He claims to have plenty of money, and his current, much older wife confirms that, yet many of the presents William brings or sends to Ann have questionable origins. He’s a playwright, and that’s confirmed, and yet his plays appear to be almost parodies of working class woes. Is he talented or not? Does William take advantage of women or does he simply fill each need as he comes across sadness and loneliness? Is William just a conman wrapped up in tinsel prose and cheap tenderness? Are the many women he meets and beds his victims or his muses?

But I can’t finish the review without mention of one of the book’s most marvelous characters-another fuzzy around the edges person–Mrs Walton, Ann’s mother. She interferes, criticises, and behaves inappropriately at all the wrong moments in Ann’s life. At one point she hears William moaning outside trying to get into Ann’s flat:

‘What’s wrong with the fool’ hissed Mrs Walton. ‘Does he think he’s Heathcliff?’ She had never known anything like it. Not even during the war when things were more casual.

Ann makes a visit to Brighton to visit her parents and somehow their warped domesticity connects to Ann’s acceptance of William’s behaviour and his dreadful lies. Even William seems to attain some new dizzying heights of deception with his incredible story of how one trip to the dentist ended with the dentist assaulting him and throwing away William’s clothes.

Beryl Bainbridge based the character of William on Alan Sharp; they had a child together.

Here’s another review at Cleopatra Loves Books

Review copy

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Harriet Said: Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t know if we were ever innocent.”

Harriet Said, Beryl Bainbridge’s first novel, is inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder which took place in New Zealand in 1954 and involved two, closely bonded teenage girls who murdered one of the girls’ mothers. The incident inspired the wonderful film Heavenly Creatures.  And of course, most of us know that one of the girls, Juliet Hulme, is now the author, Anne Perry. Apart from the bare bones of the real-life murder case, any other connections vaporize in Bainbridge’s book which explores the rich fantasy life of two teenage girls who obsess, dangerously, over a middle-aged married man.

Harriet Said takes place in England and the story is narrated by an unnamed 13 year old girl who has just returned home from boarding school to Formby. She was sent away thanks to her relationship with Harriet, who’s a year older, and the much more dominant of the pair. “Dirty stories” were found written in the narrator’s notebook, and then a neighbor, Mrs. Biggs, reported that the girls were behaving inappropriately with Italian prisoners of war.  So the narrator is packed off to boarding school as a time-out move, but the girls reconnect when Harriet returns from Wales. And, of course, they return to their old patterns of behaviour….

harriet-said

Unfortunately, what none of the adults in this story understand is that Harriet, and not the less attractive, lumpish narrator, is the true trouble maker here. Harriet dictates the diary, but it’s the narrator who writes the diary in case it is discovered. It’s Harriet who comes up with diabolical plans with the narrator passively agreeing. Harriet is dangerous because she is so charming; she’s the more attractive of the two girls, and even though she’s a known bad influence, she still manages to sway people in her favour. Self-possessed Harriet is much more dominant, taking the lead, controlling the action, creating meaning, and devising the rules in various transgressive events, but she’s also the leader because she’s more attractive, and the other girl, our narrator, always plays catch up and admires Harriet for her sangfroid and her “calm refusal to be blackmailed into submissiveness by parental grief.” Here’s an example of Harriet rewriting events:

“What’s that got to do with it?” asked Harriet, but not crossly. “I wrote that after we met those boys from the remand home when I took my clothes off and you wouldn’t because your knickers were filthy.”

“They weren’t filthy,” I protested. “I told you, they were my mum’s and they were pink with awful lace.”

These two girls are cocooned in their own fantasy life. Reality, in the form of their parents (and Harriet’s parents are a bit odd), is minimally intrusive, and as the weeks spin out, gradually the girls’ fantasies become increasingly dangerous as they begin to focus on Mr Biggs, a man they call the Tsar.  All teenage girls have fantasy lives (well to be honest, it’s part of the human condition, isn’t it?), but in the case of teenage girls, fantasy can take on a more dangerous edge especially if they experiment with sexuality and their newfound sexual power.

While the subject matter is intriguing, and the author does an excellent job of showing how these girls create, and exist, in a separate adolescent world, I’d place Harriet Said on the bottom of the Beryl Bainbridge stack read so far; the pacing plodded at times with little tension. I kept thinking of Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters, the tale of another teenage girl, and Harriet Said faded in comparison. Cleo, however, loved the book. So see  Cleo’s review for a different opinion.

Review copy.

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The Birthday Boys: Beryl Bainbridge

“I dare say,” I’d continue, “that you think you’ve known what it is to be cold.”

While I’ve throughly enjoyed many Beryl Bainbridge novels, I’ve avoided this author’s historical fiction. For this reader, historical fiction is anything pre-1914, and in common with others, I’ve been disappointed in the way authors can’t seem to leave modern sensibilities behind when they step into the past. This brings me to The Birthday Boys, a fiction novel based on the catastrophic 1910 expedition to Antarctica.

The novel is broken up into five distinct sections, spanning from 1910-1912 in five voices: Petty Officer Edgar (Taff) Evans, Dr Edward Wilson, Capt. Robert Scott, Lt. Henry Robertson (Birdie) Bowers and Capt. Lawrence Edward (Titus) Oates. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that these are the five men who trekked to the South Pole only to find that they’d been beaten to their gaol, and that on their return journey all five men died. I still remember the history lesson.

The novel begins before the ship, Terra Nova, leaves for the long voyage, and it’s the voice of Petty Officer Edgar Evans we hear first. Optimism reigns with parties, free drinks and farewell celebrations– although there are a few signs of foreboding which, of course, all come to pass.

the-birthday-boys

Wikipedia has an informative page on the Terra Nova Expedition along with the information that Scott was long hailed, unequivocably as a hero, until … well … he wasn’t, and now many of the decisions he made are called into question. It’s these fatal decisions that Bainbridge tackles as she burrows into this story of exploration. Were these men incredibly brave or incredibly foolhardy? All of the elements that are now acknowledged as fatal mistakes appear in the story–“a catalogue of disasters and miscalculations,” the failure of the motorized sleds, Scott’s aversion to using sled dogs, the poor quality of the ponies that Scott insisted on using, the fact that five men trekked to the South Pole on rations for four,  “inexpertise on skis,” and Scott’s stubbornness and inflexibility.

Although five different voices contributed to this tale, there are just a few salient issues that seep through the narrative: loyalty to Scott (with the exception of Oates), the way these men saw nature to be conquered and what drives men to attempt such goals, in such conditions–especially if you’ve been on other expeditions and have a jolly good idea of the sort of thing you’ll face. Wilson, for example, joined the 1901-1904 Discovery Expedition, and shelved his memories for this trip. Evans “lost most of the nerves” in his lower jaw (along with his teeth) in an earlier Antarctica trip.

This is not easy reading, and I doubt I could stomach reading a non fiction book on the subject. Bainbridge’s recreation of the expedition through fiction takes us right there in the frozen Antarctica with these men, and at times, this is a dire, grueling read. The deaths of the ponies is horrendous. We become observers–sometimes of wanton slaughter as these men move south: Wilson painting a Portuguese man-of-war, noting that it was “astonishing beautiful” in the water but “once removed from the sea they go out like a candle, the colour snuffed away,”  and Oates who “slaughtered” a “man-of-war bird” with a seventeen foot wing span. We get a sense of what drove these men–all larger than life characters who didn’t fit in well into mainstream society, “misfits, victims of a changing world.”

What sort of man was Scott–a leader of men, and so loved that his followers said they would die for him…. and they did…

In his ruthlessness of purpose he resembled Napoleon, who, when the Alps stood in the way of his armies, cried out, “There shall be no Alps.” For Scott there was no such word as impossible, or if there was it was listed in a dictionary for fools. In the dreadful circumstances in which we found ourselves, half-starved and almost always frozen, our muscles trembling from the strain of dragging those infernal sledges, I expect his was the only way. To have faltered at this late stage would have been like pulling in one’s horse while it was leaping. He spared no one, not even himself, and he drove us on by the sheer force of his will.

I usually avoid fiction books based on real events as I am left wondering what exactly was true and what was fiction. Then I wished I’d read a non fiction book on the subject instead. In the case of The Birthday Boys, due to its dire and sometimes gruesome subject matter, I do not want to read the source material. Bainbridge, who must have poured over the journals, letters and facts of the disaster took me along on the trip through her perceptive eyes, and what a fantastically horrible journey to hell it was.

I can’t help remembering the Temple of the Tooth in Ceylon with its pictures depicting the Buddhist hell. One could only thank God they were fanciful, as most of them went beyond description for fiendish ingenuity, the worst torments s being reserved for the killers of animals.

Review copy

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The Girl in The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

“I don’t believe that Harold understands me, not really … we’re not on the same wavelength.”

British author, Beryl Bainbridge has been a great favourite for years, so when she died in 2010, I thought that all those wonderful books she’s written, all those hours of pleasure and entertainment were behind me. Permanently. Then came the news that there was another book–an unfinished manuscript. The fact that the book is unfinished raised some issues. While I knew that I would have to read The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, I was also concerned that the book might be a disappointment. I shouldn’t have worried.

Bainbridge’s friend and editor, Brendan King worked on the novel after the author’s death and calls it a “flawed masterpiece.”  It’s classic Bainbridge–replete with her signature mordant wit and brilliant observations of human nature. When writing the novel, Bainbridge mined a diary account of a three-week road trip she made across America in 1968. This real journey was from Washington to San Francisco while the fictional account found in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress begins in Baltimore and ends in Los Angeles. The book may seem to be the story of the adventures encountered on a road trip, but the real focus is the story of two startlingly dissimilar individuals who exposed to the same events, have vastly different reactions.

It’s 1968, and The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress begins with the arrival in Baltimore of a British girl called Rose. She’s flown to America to look for Dr. Wheeler, a mysterious man she met sixteen years before “in some remote coastal village in the north of England.” An enigmatic figure, Wheeler held a special significance for Rose, and while she’s suffered through some personal problems, Wheeler has somehow, in his absence, achieved the significance of a guru.

Rose, who works in a bank,  has very little money (she scrapes together $47), and really can’t afford the trip, but she’s subsidized in her quest by the equally mysterious, middle-aged Washington Harold–yet another man she met in Britain and with whom she’s been corresponding for over a year. Washington Harold has agreed to help Rose find Wheeler, and he provides a camper in which the ill-matched pair embark across America. Harold is no good samaritan, and he has his own murky reasons for seeking out Wheeler.

Most of the humour comes from the cultural encounters Rose experiences and also the frustrations Rose’s guide, Harold, undergoes through his forced confinement with Rose. Rose is a bizarre, fey creature who’s an intriguing combination of other-worldly innocence, which sometimes acts as a protective shield,  meshed with the sagacious acceptance and wisdom of the elderly. She relates meeting a man on the plane, and while we pick up bad vibes, Rose, typically, doesn’t:

Rose hadn’t liked the sound the aircraft made as it tore through the sky, and it must have made her breathe heavily because the man in the next seat kept urging her to relax and take hold of his hand. All her life people had been telling her what to do, even strangers, which was curious. He was quite a nice man, in spite of him confiding that his wife had bad breath, so she did as suggested. It didn’t help.

The encounter with the man on the plane is magnified when she talks about the incident with Harold:

“The plane was marvellous,” she gushed. “So much food they give you … all that drink. A gentleman who spoke candidly of his wife treated me to champagne … wasn’t that kind of him? He’d been away on business, first in Tokyo, then in Ireland.” Only the bit about the business trips was true: she hadn’t been bought the champagne.

Harold think Rose is impressed when she sees his home, but here’s her real reaction:

The bathroom was tiled and none too clean. There was a torn curtain of plastic slung sideways from the bath. The tub, similar to the one she used in Kentish Town, stood on cast-iron legs, old and rusted. Judging from the state of the toilet bowl, Americans didn’t know about Vim. Which was funny seeing the way Harold, the evening she had invited him in for a coffee, had rubbed his finger across her bedside table and commented on the grime.

 Harold chalks up Rose’s peculiarities to being British, notes her lack of personal hygiene, and  finally decides she is a “retard.” Rose stubbornly fights back against what she sees as Harold’s controlling personality with disconnected flights of fancy and platitudes such as “Too much cleaning makes us susceptible to germs.” The trip essentially becomes an oddly comic battle of wits and will between Harold and Rose. Even Harold’s friends consider him an inflexible bore and seem to prefer Rose.  While Harold, a mature man who holds the keys to the camper and the financial purse strings, may think he has the upper hand, ultimately Rose is the winner, and at one point, Harold is appalled to find that he’s beginning to sound like Rose. Rose’s brilliantly bizarre thought processes defy logic and counterbalance as they verve off into absurdity:

It’s normal, ” she replied, “for people who come from different backgrounds to find it difficult to get on. It’s because we’re programmed by the people who brought us up.”

It was disconcerting the way she often came out with an intelligent observation, and irritating when, as always, she quickly ruined it, suggesting that if they were squirrels, the very first ones without parents, knowing how to find nuts would be a matter of luck, not inheritance. “If we didn’t see our mothers scrabbling beneath a pine tree, how could we know what to do?” she enquired absurdly.

Bainbridge creates a kaleidoscope of 60s America culture seen through Rose’s eyes–race problems, riots, the Vietnam war, and even a bank robbery take place as Rose and Harold drive across America in Harold’s camper van. Dr. Wheeler always seems one step ahead, and since he’s rumoured to be part of Kennedy’s election team, Rose and Harold head towards Los Angeles and a date with history…

For those who’ve never read a Beryl Bainbridge novel, if you’re a fan of Muriel Spark, then chances are that you will also enjoy Bainbridge.  

Copy courtesy of the publisher, Europa Editions

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