An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

I’ve long wanted to read Beryl Bainbridge – her 1989 Booker-shortlisted novel An Awfully Big Adventure has been in my sights since Max reviewed it last year. So, when Annabel announced she would be hosting a Bainbridge Reading Week in June, it seemed the perfect opportunity for me to pick it up.

IMG_2842

Set in the early 1950s, An Awfully Big Adventure features Stella, a teenage girl who lives with her Uncle Vernon and his wife, Lily, in their down-at-heel boarding house in Liverpool. (Neither of the girl’s parents is on the scene, but the reasons behind their absence only become clear towards the end of the novel). Stella is quick and determined; she has the brains but not the discipline for schoolwork, preferring instead the environment of Mrs Ackerley’s ‘Dramatic Art’ classes where she goes every Friday after school.

In his desire to see Stella do well in life, Vernon pulls a few strings with a friend to get her a meeting with the producer at the local repertory theatre, a rather handsome fellow by the name of Meredith Potter. At first, Potter and his colleague – stage manager, Bunny – don’t seem terribly interested in seeing Stella perform the piece she has prepared in advance. Nevertheless, they take her out to tea and Eccles cakes at a nearby café (a wonderful scene which Max highlights in his review). At the end of their meeting, Stella is somewhat surprised when Meredith offers her a role; luckily for her, she is to start at the theatre at the beginning of the new season, one of two juniors Meredith ends up hiring for the run.

In due course, Stella meets the other members of the company, most of whom come complete with their own eccentricities and idiosyncrasies. This is a darkly comic novel, with much of the humour arising from the interactions between these characters as they go about their business at the theatre, all heightened by the various romantic attachments and professional rivalries at play within the group. Here’s a brief snippet to give you a feel for the troupe.

There were three men and four women in the cast of Dangerous Corner, all of whom, save one, were under contract for the season. The exception was Dawn Allenby, a woman in her thirties who had been engaged for this first production only and who, two days into rehearsal, had fallen heavily for Richard St Ives. If she was served before him at the morning tea-break she offered her cup to him at once, protesting that his need was greater than hers. He had only to fumble in the pocket of his sports jacket, preparatory to taking out his pipe, and she was at his elbow striking on a musical lighter which tinkled out the tune of ‘Come Back to Sorrento’.

St Ives was plainly terrified of her. Cornered, he resorted to patting her on the shoulder, while across his face flitted the craven smile of a man dealing with an unpredictable pet that yet might turn on him. He laughed whenever she spoke to him and clung to Dotty Blundell for protection, whirling her away on his arm the moment rehearsals were over. (pg 46) 

At first, Stella finds herself doing odd jobs around the theatre, running errands for various members of the cast and getting to know how things work. Nevertheless, her lively imagination and rather forthright manner do not go unnoticed. There is something quite refreshing about Stella, and it’s not long before she finds herself in a cameo role in the company’s production of Caesar and Cleopatra.

Dotty Blundell had grown especially fond of Stella. She was of the opinion there was more to the girl than might reasonably be expected. She had a boldness of manner, not to be confused with brashness, and an ability to express herself that was amusing, if at times disconcerting. (pg. 77)

That said, Stella is still relatively young and inexperienced, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. In her innocence and naivety, she soon falls in love with Meredith, placing him on a pedestal in the hope that he will reciprocate her feelings. Meredith, on the other hand, shows little interest in forging any kind of attachment to the girl – unbeknownst to Stella, he is in fact gay.

Things take a bit of turn for Stella with the arrival of P. L. O’Hara, a seasoned actor who is drafted in when one of the regular players breaks his leg in an accident. Having worked with Meredith and other long-standing members of the repertory team in the past, O’Hara has a history with the company and with Liverpool itself (a point of some significance within the story). In an attempt to make Meredith jealous, Stella gets involved with O’Hara, visiting him in his basement room several nights in a row – in essence, she thinks it might be useful to have a bit of experience under her belt for when Meredith finally gets around to showing some interest. It’s not long before the situation gets messy, but I’d better not say anything more for fear of revealing too much about the ending.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel with its sharp observations and darkly comic view of life. In some ways, it reminded me a little of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore, a tragicomedy set within a community of barge dwellers on the River Thames in the early ‘60s. Bainbridge’s novel is perhaps funnier than the Fitzgerald, but with both of these books, one gets the feeling that catastrophe could strike these rather fragile people at any moment. Here, we know from the outset that things don’t end well for Stella. The novel begins with Chapter 0 — effectively a prologue that is revisited in the epilogue — in which she claims ‘I’m not old enough to shoulder the blame. Not all of it. I’m not the only one at fault.’ Only when we reach the closing chapters do we discover what Stella is referring to here.

Alongside the comedy and dark undercurrent, Bainbridge brings a real feeling of warmth and affection to this novel, particularly in the portrayal of the various characters, most notably Stella’s Uncle Vernon. Vernon cares very deeply for Stella and doesn’t want to see her get hurt. He knows she is bound to change as she gets more involved with the theatre, and yet he is unprepared for how lost he feels when this starts to happen.

He had wanted her to alter, had himself at some sacrifice to his pocket jostled her onto the path towards advancement, and yet he sensed she was leaving him behind. He hadn’t realised how bereft he would feel, how alarmed. (pg. 42)

Stella too is a wonderful creation. With her combination of adolescent innocence and frankness, she has a tendency to say exactly what pops into her head without thinking about the consequences, thereby inadvertently creating tensions within the group. Once again, I won’t go into the details as it’s best you discover these for yourselves should you decide to read the book.

In her younger days, Bainbridge spent some time working at the Liverpool Playhouse, a fact that shows in this novel as the details feel spot on. (Several of the characters in Meredith’s repertory company are based on people Bainbridge met during that time.)

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that conveys something of the atmosphere of England in the early ‘50s, a time when the fallout from WW2 was still visible for all to see. Money is tight in Stella’s family, so baths are a once-a-fortnight luxury here – plus they all seem to use the same towel!

It was inconvenient, Stella coming home and wanting a bath. As Uncle Vernon pointed out, it was only Wednesday.

‘I don’t care what day it is,’ she said. She was so set on it she was actually grinding her teeth.

It meant paraffin had to be fetched from Cairo Joe’s chandler’s shop next door to the Greek Orthodox church, and then the stove lugged two flights up the stairs and the blanket nailed to the window with tacks. In the alleyway beyond the back wall stood a row of disused stables and a bombed house with the wallpaper hanging in shreds from the chimney-breast, and sometimes women, no better than they ought to be, lured men into the ruined shadows.

‘You’ll freeze,’ Lily threatened, having run upstairs in her coat and hat to lay out the family towel and returned, teeth chattering, like Scott on his way to the Pole. (pgs. 37-38)

For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Cleo and Emma.

An Awfully Big Adventure is published by Abacus Books.

35 thoughts on “An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you, Annabel, for hosting the BB Reading Week as it was just the catalyst I needed to pick this one up. I think I’ve discovered another great writer to explore in more detail. It feels like a novel that would yield even more on a second reading once you’re aware of the structure and overall nature of the story.

      Reply
  1. gertloveday

    I’m a big Bainbridge fan but I haven’t read this one or Sweet Willima, which sounds very enticing. My favourite is probably The Bottle Factory Outing, maybe because it’s the one I read first and I was joyfully gobsmacked at her murderous cheek. She takes no prisoners. I agree with the comparison with Penelope Fitzgerald, and she also reminds me of a psychologically tougher and less narcissistic (and of course funnier) Jean Rhys.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m delighted to hear you are a Bainbridge fan! I thought this was excellent, full of dry wit and sharp insights. It’s very cleverly constructed too – I’m pretty sure you would love it. The Bottle Factory may well be my next BB as the more I hear about it the more tempting it sounds.

      Glad you agree about the comparison with Fitzgerald. I think I undervalued Offshore at the time of reading as it’s a novel that seems to have grown in my mind as the months have gone by. Certain characters and scenes keep coming back to me, so I think I’ll read it again at some point.

      Reply
  2. Julie's Book Cave

    I haven’t read any of Bainbridge’s books – perhaps this one would be a good start. Although I don’t live in Liverpool I know it quite well and visit the Playhouse often. Thank you for a good review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Julie. I seem to recall Max saying that this would make a near-perfect introduction to Bainbridge, so that’s one of the reasons I started here. It certainly worked for me!

      Reply
  3. Séamus Duggan

    Great to see you have started on your Bainbridge adventure, and hope you share further reviews of her work. Although she rates as one of my favourite writers I have yet to read this, although I do have a copy waiting for me. Thanks for the heads up on the Bainbridge Reading Week as well. It may propel me to write something about “A Weekend With Claude” which I read earlier this year.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha – well, I’m very keen to read more of her, so watch this space! (As an aside, why have I left it so late to read these writers? It’s a complete mystery to me.) Do you have a favourite or any recommendations for where to go next with Bainbridge? I’m thinking about The Bottle Factory Outing but would love to hear your thoughts. And I hope you do find some time to write about A Weekend With Claude – the title alone has piqued my interest.

      Reply
      1. Séamus Duggan

        I have started trying to put together a post on A Weekend with Claude. Not my favourite Bainbridge but I still enjoyed it. As for recommendations, The Bottle Factory Outing is great and was my introduction to BB. I LOVE Master Georgie and Harriet Said and would find to hard to choose between them. Young Adolf is also great. I reviewed all of them.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Great – thanks, Seamus. Bottle Factory is sounding increasingly like a must-read; everyone seems to love it. I quite fancy Harriet Said, too. Good to know you’ve reviewed them (I’ve made a note to explore your Beryl archive over the next few weeks). Looking forward to hearing more about Claude as well.

          Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    You seem to find books that are really strong character studies Jacqui. I share your interest in them. This sounds like a good one.

    Well written stories that include an ensemble characters are also appealing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Plenty of interesting characters here, Brian. Stella is quite an intriguing girl, a beguiling mix of the knowing, the forthright and the somewhat naive. I loved the banter between the theatre players in this one.

      Reply
  5. Emma

    Great review, Jacqui. I really enjoyed this very special novel. I loved the humour and Stella’s a lovely character.

    If I had the time, I’d read The Bottle Factory Outing. But, a week, it’s too short to participate to any event.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. I loved Stella’s character, too, and the way she just came out with things. I enjoyed reading your billet this morning – it’s always interesting to compare perspectives with you, especially if it’s a book we’ve both read.

      Pity you didn’t know about Annabel’s event in advance as it would have been a good opportunity to read Bottle Factory. As you say though, it’s virtually impossible to do anything in less than a week, especially if you have other reviews waiting to be written.

      Reply
  6. Annabel (gaskella)

    My other favourites are The Bottle Factory Outing, Sweet William and Injury Time of her non-historical ones. I’ve only read The Birthday Boys and Every Man For Himself of the historical ones and also loved both. Any of these would be a great next Beryl.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great – thanks, Annabel. The Bottle Factory seems to be a favourite, so it’s definitely in the frame. I’ll take a look at Sweet William and Injury Time as well – cheers. (I’m not terribly keen on historical fiction as a rule, so I might stick with the others!)

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    This sounds great, the theatre type setting really appeals. Bainbridge is so good at creating the atmosphere of the world she is writing about.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t she just? I was really impressed with this. There’s so much packed into such a slim little book. I think you’d enjoy it a great deal, Ali.

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    Delighted you enjoyed it, and thanks for the pingback. It’s tricky isn’t it to do it credit without giving too much away? (Though you manage).

    I actually preferred this to Bottle Factory, not so much at the time of reading (perhaps slightly then) but it’s held up better in memory. That said, Bottle Factory is very good too. Darker perhaps.

    I don’t fancy her historicals, so not sure which by her I’ll read next (plus I want to get back to Pym first, and Taylor, and so many more…)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cheers, and thanks for writing about it in the first place – I’m losing count of the number of gems I’ve discovered as a result of your reviews, but it’s quite a few. Yes, it is tricky one to capture without revealing too much, but I have dropped a couple of fairly heavy hints (hopefully teasers as opposed to out-and-out spoilers!). I loved the structure, the way everything comes full circle by the end. I’ve been wondering if she wrote the beginning and ending first before everything else was sketched out. It wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case.

      Interesting to hear how well this has settled in your mind over the past year. That’s really good to know as I suspect I might revisit it at some point. It made me think of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore too, a book I think I undervalued as the time of reading as my impressions of it have grown as the months have slipped by. Bottle Factory does sound good, though, and it’s definitely on the list for the future. The historicals probably aren’t for me either – I still have nightmares about wrestling with Wolf Hall for book group (both the physical book and the audio version). And yes, I’m with you in your desire to get back to Pym and Taylor (as well as more Beryl). I quite fancy trying one of Pym’s post-wilderness novels as I’ve heard they’re somewhat darker than the early ones – Quartet in Autumn, perhaps.

      Reply
      1. Jonathan

        I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t read any books by Bainbridge, Fitzgerald or Pym but I have noticed a copy of Quartet in Autumn at my local library, which looks enticing; I only put it back on the shelf because I was determined not to get sidetracked from reading some I had planned. I should aim to read something by all three authors.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Sounds like a good plan, Jonathan. I can wholeheartedly recommend all three of these writers. That said, I’m quite late to them myself – in fact, I sometimes wonder why I left it so long to try them. For Penelope Fitzgerald, it might be worth trying either The Bookshop or Offshore, and for Bainbridge (as Annabel and others have suggested), either this one or The Bottle Factory Outing would make a good entry point. With Pym, there seems to be a bit of a difference between her early, funny novels and her later, somewhat darker works. I loved Excellent Women (an early one), but I’m keen to read Quartet in Autumn as well.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Don’t they just! My parents grew up in the 1930s and ’40s, so I suspect their home lives were quite similar to Stella’s. Outside toilets and shared family items were the norm!

      Reply
  9. BookerTalk

    I was thinking as I read your review this book could be the one that changes my mind on Bainbridge. I’ve read two by her and wasn’t wowed. But then I saw your comment that it reminded you of Offshore which is a book I disliked. So now I’m less sure….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      To be fair, this is a more humourous novel than the Fitzgerald – there’s a lot of dry wit in the writing here, more so than in Offshore. Plus, Stella is a wonderful creation, and rather easier to love than Fitzgerald’s Nenna. The comparison with Offshore has more to do with the community aspect of the setting and the characters in the theatre troupe. There is something rather fragile about these people, a sort of feeling that reminded me of the barge dwellers in the Fitzgerald. It’s a great book, one of Bainbridge’s finest by all accounts!

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Great. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with Everyman. I’m glad you commented on the comparison with the Fitzgerald. I don’t think I was terribly clear in my review, so it was a good point to raise. Alongside the community-based settings, both of these books combine elements of humour and tragedy, but there are some clear differences between the two.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Cathy. I’m pretty sure you would enjoy it – not sure if you have any more of her books in the 746, but there’s always the library! (The Bottle Factory Outing sounds fab so I’m hoping it will be my next Beryl.)

      Reply
  10. Lisa Hill

    I liked Master Georgie and An Awfully Big Adventure, and I’ve got According to Queenie on my TBR, but I’m getting the vibe that I should look out for The Bottle Factory Outing as well:)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Sounds rather enticing, doesn’t it? The title alone whets the appetite! I suspect that’s where I’ll be heading next with Beryl. :)

      Reply
  11. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  12. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s