I’ve had mixed results with Beryl Bainbridge’s books in the past, and so I have left for a long time in the box marked ‘undoubtedly an excellent author, but probably not for me.’
But there have been a number of things, over time, that have made me wonder whether Beryl should come out of the box.
I realised when I read her obituaries a few years ago that I had come in part way through her writing career. That planted a seed. Maybe I should go back to her early books, and move forward to follow her on life’s journey.
I had planned to make a start during Annabel’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week Last Year, but the timing was wrong. The idea went on to the back burner.
But then Beryl’s early, slightly lesser known, novels began to appear on the Virago Modern Classics List, with lovely eye-catching covers. It was a sign. We were meant to meet again.
I’ve read two of those novels now, a few weeks apart, and I was very taken with both of them.
‘A Quiet Life’ was one of the slim volumes I threw into my bag before setting off on a long train journey a couple of weeks ago. I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but I thought I owed it a fair chance, a time when I could concentrate with minimal distractions. And that seemed to pay off.
It began with a brother and sister meeting for the first time in years, in a café to tackle the question of who would take what of their late mother’s personal affects.
Alan had taken a conventional path through life, and Madge had done the opposite. She told him that he had always been the favoured child, that he had been shielded from life’s harsher realities, but he remembered it rather differently.
He remembered an unhappy, dysfunctional family. A father who had a difficult war and bitterly resented that he had not come home to a land fit for heroes. A mother obsessed with the appearance of her home and her family. And Madge, who spent every moment she could with a German former POW.
Four lives pulled together in a small shabby, over-furnished terraced house. It’s wonderfully vividly painted, crammed full of period detail, and those details so perfectly chosen that I wondered how she knew, how she managed to pick out exactly the right things to illuminate the time, the place, the lives being lived.
Because period details are lovely, but a story needs characters to make it sing. And this story had them. It was Alan’s story and I felt for him, I really did, but I was also fascinated by Madge and fearful for their parents’ troubled relationship. Economic necessity and the fear of defying convention held them together, but it wouldn’t have taken much to blow them apart.
There was too much life, there were too many emotions, in that little terraced house. And when Alan found a girlfriend maybe he took his eye off the ball, or maybe it would have happened anyway. It had to one day.
What? Now that would be telling!
Beryl Bainbridge pulled me into a real family, real lives, real relationships. She showed me the pathos and the dark humour in all of that. She showed me that nothing is simple, that all things will pass, and that by and large we do always hang on to hope.
This isn’t my favourite kind of book but it’s a very good book of its kind, and that has to be a good thing.
I was going to write about ‘Sweet William’ too, but the more I think about it the more I realise that it deserves a post of its own.
Another book for another day.