Tag Archives: Abacus Books

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, the only novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. First published in the US in 1953, this exquisitely-written novella has recently been released in the UK for the first time, making it available to a much wider audience of readers than before.

Maud Martha comprises a sequence of around thirty short vignettes, each one an evocative prose poem presenting a snapshot of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. As the writer Margo Jefferson points out in her excellent introduction, Brooks – an African American woman from the working classes – drew on her own life to create Maud Martha, tweaking various elements, dialling them up or down to portray the story.

Like Gwendolyn Brooks herself, Maud Martha Brown was born in 1917 to a relatively poor African American family from Chicago. As such, the novella’s early chapters offer glimpses of Maud’s childhood in the city’s South Side, a tough, uncompromising environment punctuated by flashes of beauty in the day-to-day. Dandelions glitter like ‘yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress’ of the Browns’ back yard, while the beginning of class is heralded by the peal of a bell, ‘a quickening of steps’ and the ‘fluttering of brief cases.’ Right from the very start, the reader is struck by the author’s use of imagery to convey a glorious sense of wonder in the routine and mundane.

Over the course of the novel, we follow Maud Martha through childhood, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. The girl is bright, virtuous and imaginative – not as pretty or dainty as her older sister, Helen, but virtuous nonetheless. She dreams of a life in New York with all its attendant glamour and culture – alluring but unobtainable, for the moment at least.

When Maud Martha meets Paul, her body sings beside him – this man who craves the pleasurable things in life, ‘spiffy clothes, beautiful yellow girls, natural hair, smooth cars, jewels, night clubs, cocktail lounges, class’. Marriage swiftly ensues, with the couple settling for a tiny kitchenette and a shared bathroom despite their aspirations for something more spacious. But, while there are moments of brightness – occasional trips to the cinema and other small pleasures – life is hard for the newly-married Maud, whose skin is darker than her husband’s, something of a barrier to maintaining his affections.

What I am inside, what is really me, he likes okay. But he keeps looking at my color, which is like a wall. He has to jump over it in order to meet and touch what I’ve got for him. He has to jump away up high in order to see it. He gets awful tired of all that jumping. (p. 56)

Brooks’ vignettes range from depictions of commonplace, quotidian activities (sparing a mouse; gutting a chicken; shopping for a hat) to more notable occasions (first beau; giving birth; her grandmother’s death). Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most affecting snapshots illustrate how Maud Martha navigates the casual prejudices and racism she experiences on a day-to-day basis. The telling looks, the unguarded remarks, and the more blatant, explicit injustices are all captured so carefully and subtly through Brooks’ poetic prose. For instance, in one early vignette, a trip to an uptown cinema – a place where people of colour are rarely seen – proves somewhat uncomfortable for Maud Martha and Paul, despite the beautiful setting.

When the picture was over, and the lights revealed them for what they were, the Negroes stood up among the furs and good cloth and faint perfume, looked about them eagerly. They hoped they would meet no cruel eyes. They hoped no one would look intruded upon. (pp. 49–50)

When Maud Martha takes a job as a domestic ‘help’ in the wealthy suburb of Winnetka, she realises just what Paul has to put up with in his service job – especially when her exacting employer, the insensitive Mrs Burns-Cooper, proceeds to rattle off a litany of boasts. Nevertheless, there is an admirable degree of dignity in how Brooks’ protagonist deals with this put-down and other similar incidents, a quiet seam of resilience in the face of hurtful slights.

Shall I mention, considered Maud Martha, my own social triumphs, my own education, my travels to Gary and Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio? Shall I mention my collection of fancy pink satin bras? She decided against it. She went on listening, in silence, to the confidences until the arrival of the lady’s mother-in-law (large-eyed, strong, with hair of a mighty white, and with an eloquent, angry bosom.) (p. 103)

Perhaps the most affecting example of racism occurs when Maud Martha takes her daughter, Paulette, to visit Santa at the local department store. While Santa welcomes the white children with smiles and open arms, Paulette is roundly ignored – to the point where her mother has to intervene. For the most part, Maud Martha is mindful of keeping the occasional ‘scraps of baffled hate’ hidden inside her, unvoiced and constrained, but in this instance, she can barely hold back the tears. It’s a deeply moving vignette, poignantly evoked through Brooks’ expressive prose.    

But despite the myriad of challenges for a young, black, working-class woman like Maud Martha, there is something wonderfully uplifting about this book, just like its protagonist’s attitude to life itself. The vignettes glow with evocative imagery – like jewels that shimmer as their facets catch the light.  

The Ball stirred her. The Beauties, in their gorgeous gowns, bustling, supercilious; the young men, who at other times most unpleasantly blew their noses, and darted surreptitiously into alleys to relieve themselves, and sweated and swore at their jobs, and scratched their more intimate parts, now smiling, smooth, overgallant, the drowsy lights; the smells of food and flowers, the smell of Murray’s pomade, the body perfumes, natural and superimposed… (pp. 53–54)

As we leave Maud Martha – pregnant with her second child, her brother, Harry, freshly returned from the Second World War – there’s a glorious sense of optimism in the air. Here is a woman with a world of possibilities ahead of her. ‘What, what, am I to do with all of this life?’, she muses, fearless and ready for anything, despite unsettling news of racially-motivated lynchings elsewhere.

In crafting Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks has created something remarkable, a celebration of resilience, grace, dignity and beauty – a powerful image of black womanhood that remains highly relevant today.

Maud Martha is published by Faber & Faber. My thanks to Andy Miller, whose rave on a recent episode of Backlisted pushed it up the reading pile – spot on again!

Boarding-house novels – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

A few weeks ago, I posted a list of some of my favourite novels set in hotels, featuring much-loved modern classics such as Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The post proved quite a hit, with many of you adding your own recommendations in the comments. Many thanks for those suggestions – I now have several excellent possibilities to check out!

As promised in the ‘hotels’ post, here’s my follow-up piece on boarding-house novels, an interesting variant on the theme. While boarding houses have been around since the 19th century, they were particularly common in the first half of the 20th century, offering each ‘boarder’ the opportunity to rent a room cost-effectively, particularly in towns or cities.

Just like hotel guests, every boarder comes with their own backstory, habits and peculiarities, throwing up the potential for drama, romance or tension as different individuals interact, especially in the communal areas of the house. There’s also a seedy ‘feel’ to many boarding houses, a sleazy, down-at-heel atmosphere that adds to their appeal – certainly as settings for fiction if not places to live!

So, without further ado, here are a few of my favourite boarding house novels from the shelves. 

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (1934)

Voyage is narrated by Anna Morgan, an eighteen-year-old girl brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna after her father’s death. What follows is a gradual unravelling as Anna drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort. This is a brilliant, devastating book, played out against a background of loneliness and despair – all the more powerful for its connection to Rhys’ own life.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947)

Perhaps the quintessential boarding house novel, this darkly comic tragicomedy revolves around Miss Roach, a spinster in her late thirties whose drab and dreary existence is mirrored by the suffocating atmosphere in her lodgings, The Rosamund Tea Rooms. Located in the fictional riverside town of Thames Lockdon, The Rosamond is home to a peculiar mix of misfits – lonely individuals on the fringes of life. Holding court over the residents is fellow boarder, the ghastly Mr Thwaites, a consummate bully who delights in passing judgements on others, much to Miss Roach’s discomfort. Hamilton excels at capturing the stifling atmosphere of the boarding house and the stealthy nature of war, stealing people’s pleasures and even their most basic necessities. A brilliant introduction to the boarding-house milieu. 

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross (1947)

Set in the 1940s, this marvellous novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Constantly in arrears with the rent and heavily reliant on credit, Fanshawe never seems to have enough money in his pockets. He’s living from one day to the next, but there’s always the hope that wealthy Uncle George will come through with a cheque to tide him over for a while. Meanwhile, Fanshawe’s landlady is on the lookout for any signs of money…Running alongside this storyline is a touch of romance as Fanshawe falls for a colleague’s wife, Sukie, while her husband is away – a relationship played out against the backdrop of prying landladies, seaside cafes and picnics in the woods. This terrific novel is highly recommended, especially for Patrick Hamilton fans.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)

The setting for this one is The May of Teck, a large boarding house/hostel ‘for Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty’, situated in London’s Kensington. Despite the novel’s wartime setting, there’s a wonderful boarding-school-style atmosphere in The May of Teck, with a glamorous Schiaparelli gown passing from one girl to another for various important dates. Spark is particularly good on the social hierarchy that has developed within the hostel, with the youngest girls occupying dormitory-style rooms on the first floor, those with a little more money sharing smaller rooms on the second, while the most attractive, sophisticated girls occupy the top floor, a status that reflects their interesting jobs and active social lives. By turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant, this evocative novel touches on some dark and surprising themes with a dramatic conclusion to boot.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor (1965)

I loved this darkly comic novel set in a South London boarding house in the mid-1960s. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each lodger possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, a little flawed or inadequate in some way, hovering on the fringes of mainstream society. Residents include Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity in such a way that gently elicits the reader’s sympathy. Moreover, their existences are marked by a deep sadness or loneliness, an air of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as life has passed them by. In short, this is a brilliantly observed novel, a wickedly funny tragicomedy of the highest order.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

We’re back in Kensington for this one, set in a London boarding house in the midst of the swinging ‘60s. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s drawing-room. Central to this operation are Berti and Evelyn – both stick-thin and well past their prime. With her dyed red hair and skin-tight clothes, Berti is the more formidable of the pair, a rather nosy, bawdy woman who proves difficult for Amy to control. Almost as troublesome is Evelyn – ‘a poor man’s version of Berti’ with her blue rinse and slightly tragic air. This is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances – loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. A lesser-known Comyns, but well worth your time.

Also worthy of an honourable mention or two:

  • R. C. Sherriff’s charming 1931 novel The Fortnight in September, in which the Stevens family take their annual holiday at Bognor’s Seaview boarding house, a traditional establishment that has seen better days;
  • Olivia Manning’s excellent 1951 novel School for Love, a wonderfully compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem towards the end of WW2. Notable for the monstrous Miss Bohun, who presides over the central setting – a boarding house of sorts;
  • Patricia Highsmith’s The Sweet Sickness (1960) – an immersive story of obsession, desire and fantasy. David, the novel’s central protagonist, spends much of his time fending off unwanted attention from the other residents at Mrs McCartney’s boarding house, his shabby residence in New York;
  • Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure (1989) – a most enjoyable novel set in the theatrical world of 1950s Liverpool, with a down-at-heel boarding house to boot;

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Or maybe you have some favourite boarding-house novels that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below.

A Long Way from Verona by Jane Gardam

This is a really lovely book, a thoroughly engaging coming-of-age story in the style of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – maybe with a hint of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle in the mix for good measure. I read it at the crossover point between 2021 and 2022, making it a delightful way to start the new year with an author I’ve long wanted to try.

First published in 1971, A Long Way from Verona was Jane Gardam’s debut novel – a book the author originally intended for children. But like the Dodie Smith, Verona can be enjoyed just as much, if not more, by adults – partly for the quality of the writing and partly for the sheer entertainment value.

Set in a coastal town in North Yorkshire in the early years of the Second World War, Verona is narrated by Jessica Vye, a precocious schoolgirl with an utterly captivating voice.

I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I have noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets the point. (p. 3)

When Jessica is nine, the author Arthur Hanger comes to her school to give a talk on how to become a writer, should any of the pupils be harbouring such ambitions. Jessica, who has been writing things down for as long as she can remember, is inspired by the session – so much so that she thrusts all of her writings at Mr Hanger, just as his train is leaving the station. Mr Hanger agrees to read them, and several months later he comes good on his word, returning the texts to Jessica with an encouraging note:

JESSICA VYE YOU ARE A WRITER
BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT! (p. 9)

By this point, it is clear to the reader that Jessica is a born writer. Possibly a semi-fictionalised version of Gardam herself, she is bright, knowing and outspoken – a marvellously forthright companion who feels fully-formed on the page.

Most of the novel takes place when Jessica is in the early years of adolescence, between twelve and thirteen. Every day, she commutes by train from her home in Cleveland Sands to the girls’ school in Cleveland Spa, where she must face various challenges. With her uncanny talent for reading people’s minds and her inability to keep quiet (even when it will land her in trouble), Jessica is not terribly popular with the other pupils – or with the teachers, for that matter. Several members of staff feel she is getting above herself and needs to be taught a lesson, while others are a little more sympathetic to the girl, especially given her talents.

Jessica has a small coterie of friends – Florence Bone, Helen Bell, and the marvellously named Cissie Comberbach – all of whom are delightfully sketched by Gardam, who excels in capturing their body language and banter. In a hilarious early scene, Jessica insists on the girls taking a trip to the local tea room to mark the end of term. The trouble is, Elsie Meeny’s tea shop is virtually deserted – a sleepy, down-at-heel establishment somewhat diminished by the war.

‘They think I’m crazy at home,’ Helen said. ‘I’ve told them to keep my tea hot.’

‘But this is your tea. Proper tea. Little eclairs and things. Afternoon tea.’

‘Where?’ asked Helen.

‘Well, in a minute,’ I said.

‘Are you crazy?’ Cissie Comberbach said (she hardly ever spoke). ‘There’s a war on.’

‘It’s not been on that long. If there’s still tea shops there’s still teas. You just don’t know round here anything about it. It used to be marvellous in places like this, people in coloured hats eating ices, and flowers hanging and lovely fat chocolate biscuits and the sun!’ Helen turned her face away and picked her gas mask up and swung it about as if she would soon be going, and I suddenly felt absolutely fed up with her. (pp. 15–16)

The girls do eventually get their ‘shilling tea’, but it’s something of a disappointment – especially compared to the version served to the tea shop’s regular customer, the rather eccentric Mrs Hopkins.

‘Look at her tea,’ Helen said. ‘Crippen, just look at her tea.’

On the tray were little cress sandwiches and egg ones – even egg ones – three slices of fresh bread and butter, thin and curled like cornflakes, quite fresh, and a chocolate eclair in pale green paper. There was a tiny glass dish with blackcurrant jam in it. We sat and we looked. We looked and we looked and we went on looking. (p. 20)

As the novel unfolds, we follow Jessica as she tries to navigate her way through adolescence, negotiating various formative experiences along the way. She attends a frightful party hosted by terrible snobs – an event only redeemed by the presence of a dreamy boy, Christian Fanshawe, who becomes her first crush. During a trip to Shields East, Christian and Jessica get caught in an air raid, narrowly escaping a bomb that wipes out a whole street. It’s an incident that throws them into shock, even if Jessica doesn’t realise it at the time, such is her determination to carry on as normal. There’s also a sinister encounter with a disturbed man in the woods – an Italian who proceeds to leer at Jessica when she chastises him for destroying the dahlias. Later she discovers that the man is an escaped prisoner, a dangerous ‘maniac’ on the run from a nearby farm.

What Gardam does so well here is to capture the conflicting emotions of adolescence, from the surety of knowing one’s own mind to the agony of being misunderstood and not fitting in. We see everything through Jessica’s eyes, sharing her passion and determination to succeed alongside the inevitable moments of despondency and pain as she tries to express herself creatively. Parts of the novel are conveyed through the letters that Jessica writes to Florence Bone, her closest friend and confidante from school – messages that are at once both painfully honest and highly amusing, all expressed in her distinctive, idiosyncratic style.  

The secondary characters are wonderful too, from Jessica’s father, a schoolmaster-turned-parson who proves popular with parishioners, to her mother, a fish-out-of-water whose disorganised nature is apparent to all. Also of note is the elderly Miss Philemon, one of the few teachers who seems to understand Jessica, treating her with a combination of kindness, maturity and empathy.

This is a warm, funny, thoroughly enjoyable novel that captures the trials of adolescence so engagingly. The mundanity and routines of a small-town school are perfectly evoked – a life of shoe bags, pointless essays, order marks for poor conduct, and bland, unidentifiable school dinners. Yet despite the sense of loss, ‘making do’ and awkwardness that underscores Jessica’s adolescent life, the novel ends on a positive note with the recognition of her writing talents. It’s a fitting outcome for Gardam’s story, a validation of Jessica’s abilities – a way of channelling her experiences into writing and creativity.

A Long Way from Verona is published by Abacus; personal copy.

Across the Common by Elizabeth Berridge

First published in 1964, Across the Common is the third book I’ve read by the British writer Elizabeth Berridge, and it’s probably the richest and most complex of the three. There is quite a lot going on under the surface in this novel of family relationships and suburban life – a subversive element that reveals itself as the narrative progresses.

As the novel opens, Louise is in the process of leaving her husband, Max, to return to The Hollies, the house where she was brought up, largely by her aunts. Waiting at the door for Louise on her arrival are Aunt Rosa and Aunt Seraphina, almost as if they were expecting her despite the lack of notice.

Right from the start there is a strange aura surrounding life at The Hollies, situated as it is across from the common in suburban Pagham Green. The house itself was built by Louise’s grandfather, a man whose presence still casts a shadow over the property in spite of (or perhaps because of) his early death. Now the house has become a refuge ‘for that vanishing species, the Great British Aunt’, as Rosa and Seraphina are soon to be joined by their sister, the wheelchair-bound Cissie.

Berridge excels at creating miniature pen-portraits of the three aunts, capturing their personalities and idiosyncrasies in the most visual of ways.

Aunt Cissie sat in her wheelchair, tiny and malevolent. She could not have weighed more than seven stone, and yet she seemed to vibrate with energy and fill the hall. I had forgotten, or perhaps had never noticed, how handsome she was. She had the Braithwaite nose, high and arched, and a look of a Basque woman about her: indomitable, aristocratic, and yet with a peasant’s energy. Beside her, my two aunts looked faded. (p. 103)

With her fur hat and forthright manner, Cissie has the eccentric air of ‘minor royalty’, commanding attention as she makes her big entrance. By contrast, Aunt Rosa – the eldest and most orderly of the three sisters – seems rather reserved in comparison, a standing typified by her grey flannel dress. Ultimately, it is left to Aunt Seraphina – the green-fingered middle sister – to provide some of the novel’s most humorous moments. As Louise is somewhat surprised to observe, Seraphina is a dab hand at pilfering flower cuttings from the local park, expertly trimming geranium shoots with great speed and efficiency, irrespective of the official regulations.

‘Aunt Seraphina, you can’t! You’ll be had up! Suppose everybody just took –’

‘Hush, child. Everybody is not me. I understand flowers. They were simply begging to be propagated. There is no crime in simply taking a few shoots to propagate in one’s own garden. Think of the next frost: it would be too late. I cannot bear waste, and I told an officious keeper, so, once.’

‘You were caught?’

‘Caught? Come, come. I was observed, yes, and given a sharp warning. But I made him understand my views. I explained that it was my money being spent on this park, so I was entitled to a little interest on it. Men are so illogical.’ (p. 43)

Louise may have more than one reason for returning to her childhood home, for stepping into the past and its memories of those early years. Naturally, there is the question of what she ought to do in the future, having left Max to his work as an art teacher (and potentially the company of one of his students, too). At first, the split seems permanent, but as the novel progresses, the finality of this decision appears somewhat less certain.

Intertwined with these considerations are Louise’s reflections on her family history, particularly the apparent differences between the Braithwaite men and the women.

It was strange how this family had shed its men. They lost them by illness and disaster. And, if I faced it, by desertion. For their brothers, except for Bertie, still, one presumed, in Canada or America, were dead. They outlived their husbands, would-be lovers and sons. Men, one felt, were merely milestones. (p. 97)

In short, these unsettling feelings are heightened by a letter from Louise’s father (now deceased) that has recently come to light. The letter – which was written several years earlier and placed in the hands of a solicitor – reveals previously undisclosed information about the death of Louise’s grandfather and its ramifications for the wider family. It’s a revelation that ultimately forces Louise to confront the possibility of darkness and violence in her family’s history, where secrets were concealed to protect the reputations of the innocent.

There is a sense that Louise has also returned ‘home’ to understand her past more clearly, to gain a kind of freedom or independence from the aunts who raised her. It is only by doing this, by uncovering the guilt and shame inherent in The Hollies, that she can hope to move forward.

While there is a narrative of sorts here, Across the Common is a character-driven novel – an insightful and humane look at the complexities of family relationships. Berridge has a wonderful eye for detail, capturing the aunts’ minor jealousies with humour and authenticity. The way they cling to the past, guarding their individual habits and rituals, is really quite endearing, highlighting our need as human beings for some dignity and stability – particularly in old age. Louise too is very well drawn, with an engaging combination of visible sympathy and private humour.

Overall, then, an enjoyable read with some great characterisation. Well worth seeking out if you’re a fan of this type of fiction. The Gerts have also written about this book, and you can find their thoughts here

My copy of Across the Common was published by Abacus; personal copy.

Sing Me Who You Are by Elizabeth Berridge

There’s been a little flurry of interest in Elizabeth Berridge recently, partly prompted by a series of tweets from Simon (@stuck_inabook) and Frances (@nonsuchbook) on the Abacus editions of three of this author’s novels. Like Frances, I was intrigued by the sound of Berridge’s distinctly English style and promptly sent off for secondhand copies of two of the books, Across the Common (1964) and Sing Me Who You Are (1967). Now that I’ve read Sing, I can say that the cover matches the book to a T, perfectly capturing the rather idiosyncratic nature of the novel’s protagonist, Harriet Cooper.

Harriet – an unmarried librarian in her late thirties – has just inherited a rather ramshackle bus from her late Aunt Esther, which she plans to make her home. As the novel opens, Harriet is arriving at Uplands – a 250-acre Cambridgeshire estate where the bus happens to be located – complete with all her belongings and a pair of Siamese cats. While Harriet has been given the bus, she does not have any claim to Uplands, which is owned by her older cousin, Magda. These two women are very different from one another, both in looks and in stature. While Harriet is dowdy and mannish-looking, Magda is wealthy and attractive, very much the moneyed countrywoman with links to the local council.    

Harriet’s arrival at Uplands is a thorn in Magda’s side, the presence of the bus proving to be something of an irritation – a blot on the pastoral landscape, so to speak.

Earlier on she [Magda] had stood at the highest point of her estate, above the spinney that protected Harriet’s old converted bus, looking down over the woods and field that drifted gently to the little town below. At this time of year she could see a long way, beyond the town and over at least six counties. But all she had noticed this morning was the smoke from that absurd chimney of Harriet’s bus. The smoke rose unhurriedly from beyond the trees, for the wind which had chased the rain away had itself gone, leaving a still, damp autumn day. Harriet’s smoke irritated her, as if her cousin was deliberately writing sky signals asserting her presence on this land. And Harriet was someone whom you couldn’t very well order off, like gipsies or tramps. However much you wanted to, you couldn’t do that to poor old Harry. (p. 21)

There is a sense that Harriet had been feeling somewhat suffocated in her former role as a librarian; perhaps as a consequence of this, she views the bus as something of a fresh start, ushering in a degree of freedom from past constraints. Magda, on the other hand, is convinced that Harriet will hotfoot it back to London once the weather turns colder, underestimating the latter’s determination to stick it out.

At heart, the novel is a character study, an exploration of the tensions that arise between family members whose relationships reach back into the past. There is a spikiness to Harriet’s personality, a prickliness that can annoy others. Childhood rivalries resurface; former crushes re-emerge, particularly those involving Scrubbs, a womaniser with previous links to both Harriet and Magda. While Scrubbs is no longer alive, his shadow still hangs over the family in various and surprising ways. As the narrative unravels, longstanding secrets are revealed, and Harriet must come to terms with an altered view of her Aunt Esther.

The situation is further complicated by the presence of Magda’s husband, Gregg, a man who finds Harriet’s directness rather attractive. With his marriage to Magda on the wane, Gregg is pleased that Harriet has come to Uplands, and a tender entanglement between the two swiftly follows.  

While I didn’t love this novel quite as much as I had expected to – Berridge isn’t quite up there with the likes of Beryl Bainbridge, Barbara Pym or some of my other favourite women writers from this period – I still liked it a lot, particularly the author’s use of dry humour.

Harriet’s mother had died in the middle of Hymn No. 270 (Ancient and Modern). Her high, tuneless soprano had stopped abruptly and she had dropped forward over the back of the pew in front, hymnbook still open in her hand. Her peppermints, gloves and collection money (two sixpenny pieces, to make a modest jingle) had dropped off the shelf and rolled out into the aisle. Her chin had hit the wood, and her shiny straw hat, a new one, was jerked forward violently over her reading-glasses. All around the singing had grown ragged, heads turned.

It had been horrible. All the more so as this sort of behaviour would have horrified Mrs Cooper herself. (If the woman didn’t feel well, why hadn’t she stayed at home? Such a commotion, so unfeeling.) She must have died at once, Harriet saw, as she picked her up, for there was no realization of any outrage on her face. There was no expression at all. (pp. 27–28)

So, an interesting and intriguing read – there’s certainly enough going on here to make me want to read more. If you’ve read anything by Berridge, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts…

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

First published in 1974, The Bottle Factory Outing was Beryl Bainbridge’s fifth novel. It’s only the third of her books that I’ve read (my first was An Awfully Big Adventure, a darkly comic gem); but on the evidence of this, I should probably aim to read some more.

Ostensibly, The Bottle Factory Outing focuses on two mismatched young women, Brenda and Freda, who share a shabby bedsit while also working together at a local wine bottling factory. While Brenda is mousey and pessimistic, Freda is loud and outgoing, forever dreaming about the life she would like to be living – preferably that of a successful actress surrounded by friends and family.

In the opening paragraphs, Brenda and Freda are watching the early stages of a funeral with the removal of a coffin from another flat in their building. As they speculate on the deceased – an old lady who lived with her cat – the differences between the two women become increasingly apparent.

‘You cry easily,’ said Brenda, when they were dressing to go to the factory.

‘I like funerals. All those flowers – a full life coming to a close…’

‘She didn’t look as if she’d had a full life,’ said Brenda. ‘She only had the cat. There weren’t any mourners – no sons or anything.’

‘Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you. When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…’

‘Men always go first,’ said Brenda. ‘Women live longer.’

‘My dear, you ought to participate more. You are too cut off from life.’ (p. 2)

Twenty-six-year-old Freda is a force of nature, a tall curvy blonde who dresses flamboyantly, her cobalt blue eyeshadow and purple pantsuit adding considerably to her striking appearance. Brenda, on the other hand, cuts a dowdy figure in her dark stockings and shabby, over-sized coat. At thirty-two, Brenda already seems old before her time. Having fled an abusive relationship with her selfish husband, Brenda now wishes to hide from the world, far away from Stanley and his deranged mother.

The differences between the two girls are also noticeable at the factory – an establishment owned by Mr Paganotti, an enterprising Italian businessman who has built up the business from scratch. While at work, Freda spends much of her time chasing after Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti. In truth, however, Vittorio shows only limited interest in Freda in spite of her persistent efforts to attract his attention. Nevertheless, there is nothing that Freda would like more than a romantic dinner for two with Vittorio, a situation she tries to engineer with mixed results.

He was a man of sensibilities and everything was against her – his background, his nationality, the particular regard he had for women or a category of womanhood to which she did not belong. By the strength of her sloping shoulders, the broad curve of her throat, the dimpled vastness of her columnar thighs, she would manoeuvre him into her arms. I will be one of those women, she thought, painted naked on ceilings, lolling amidst rose-coloured clouds. She straightened and stared at a chair. She imagined how she might mesmerise him with her wide blue eyes. Wearing a see-through dressing-gown chosen from a Littlewoods catalogue, she would open the door to him. (p. 40)

Brenda too faces her own particular challenges at work; in this instance, the difficulties involves Mr Rossi, a manager at the firm, who persists in trying to grope Brenda in the seclusion of the cellar. Far from calling out Mr Rossi for sexual harassment, Brenda is too timid to say anything, preferring instead to suffer in near silence. From a young age, Brenda was brought up to be deferential – drilled into saying ‘yes’ when what she really wanted to say was ‘no’ (and vice versa).  Now in her thirties, Brenda continues to remain passive while being taken advantage of by others, afraid to speak up for fear of causing a problem.

As you’ll have guessed from the novel’s title, the centrepiece of the story revolves around a staff outing, an event that Freda has arranged much to Brenda’s horror. (In truth, Brenda would much rather stay at home, content to remain invisible while others go off to enjoy themselves.) All the other employees are looking forward to the event, especially as Mr Paganotti – notable by his absence – has donated four barrels of wine to be enjoyed during the trip.

On the morning of the outing, the van booked for the trip fails to show up, much to Freda’s disappointment. Nevertheless, Rossi cooks up a new plan for the day (largely with the aim of seducing Brenda) by offering his own car together with that of a colleague as alternative transport. It’s at this point in the story that events begin to turn increasingly surreal, culminating in a demented drive through the wilds of Windsor Safari Park as the afternoon unravels.

I don’t want to give away too many details about the trip, save to say that it feels as if the reader is watching a slow-motion car crash, powerless to look away as the horror unfolds. The tone is darkly comic and farcical, a little like a cross between Willy Russell’s play Our Day Out and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party – maybe with a touch of Nuts in May thrown in for good measure. The off-the-wall touches are beautifully done, heightened by a sharp eye for detail and freakish imagery.

The safari bus when it came was painted with black stripes like a zebra. It looked as if the whole pride of lions had hurled themselves at the rusty bonnet and ill-fitting windows and torn the tyres to ribbons. The driver was dressed in a camouflage jacket of mottled green and a hat to match, one side caught up at the side as if he were a Canadian Mountie. When he opened the double doors at the back of the van, Brenda saw he was wearing plastic sandals, bright orange and practically luminous, and striped socks. (p. 148)

The female characters are also particularly well observed, vividly brought to life by Bainbridge’s skills as a writer. At the time of publication, the book was praised in a review by William Trevor who described it ‘as though Muriel Spark had been prevailed upon to write an episode of The Liver Birds,’. (Warning: this excellent piece on Bainbrdge does contain spoilers.) It’s a great description as the novel has something of both the sharpness of Carla Lane’s writing and the savagery of Spark’s worldview. The observations on life on a low wage, social class, worker’s rights, and the harassment of women in the workplace are also keenly felt.

As the novel hurtles towards its startling denouement, the tone begins to change, shifting from black humour to deep pathos. It’s a testament to Bainbridge’s skills as a writer that this transition works so well, prompting the reader to feel some degree of sympathy for each of the characters concerned, in spite of their failings.

In essence, this is an excellent, well-crafted tragi-comedy, shot through with Bainbridge’s acute insight into human nature. It is the juxtaposition between the ordinary and the absurd that makes this such an unsettling yet compelling read.

For other perspectives on this novel, here are links to reviews by Max and Cathy. Thanks, both, for encouraging me to read this.

The Bottle Factory Outing is published by Abacus Books; personal copy.

Literary Beginnings – Monday Morning by Patrick Hamilton and Summer Crossing by Truman Capote

Something a little different from me today. It can be interesting to follow the development of a favourite writer to track how their work evolves over the years. In this post I’m looking at the debut novels of two masters of their craft, Patrick Hamilton and Truman Capote, delving into their literary beginnings to see how they started their careers.

Monday Morning by Patrick Hamilton (1925)

A fascinating insight into how Hamilton’s work was set to develop over the years, this debut novel offers early glimpses of many of the writer’s trademark tropes – more specifically, men who become infatuated with unsuitable women; forthright comic characters complete with various eccentricities; the challenges of writing, acting and other artistic pursuits; the seedy atmosphere of Earl’s Court with its smoky bars and pubs; the lure of prostitutes and heavy drinking: and of course, the loneliness of tawdry boarding-houses and hotels. It’s a lovable little novel – rather amusing and optimistic compared to Hamilton’s other work, but characteristically strong on dialogue too.

Central to the story is eighteen-year-old Anthony Forster, a romantic, idealistic young man embarking on the first phase of his adult life in London. (Everything up to this point has merely been a prologue to this ‘true’ beginning, a curtain raiser to the main event.) With his aspirations of becoming a successful writer and poet, Anthony is in danger of daydreaming his time away, forever resolving to make a proper start on *Life* next Monday Morning.

Anthony was quite sure, really, that he would be successful in obtaining a very good journalistic position. Also he had a certain fear in the obtaining of a good journalistic position. Wemyss had frightened him with stories of frantic interviewing, reporting, and putting papers to bed. There seemed in journalism a quite unfamous, distressfully energetic note of competition. Not that Anthony did not relish a bitter fight for fame. But he did not like this way of setting about it. A far nicer way of doing it would be to starve somewhere, in a garret, writing immortal things, and being free. Even been found dead one morning in the red, new sunlight. (pp.70-71)

Very little happens in the way of plot in this novel; instead, the story focuses on experiences as Anthony searches for a meaningful purpose in life. Naturally, there is love along the way, especially when our protagonist meets Diane, a rather shallow, impetuous young girl who happens to be staying at the same Kensington hotel (the Fauconberg). Amid the heady emotions of youth, Anthony’s mood fluctuates from rushes of wild passion to periods of abject disillusionment, particularly as Diane is so capricious in nature.

In time, Anthony gets a small part in a touring play via a fellow boarder at the Fauconberg, the forthright Mr Brayne. The production takes Anthony to a range of different locations including Sheffield, Manchester and Torquay, highlighting the isolated nature of a life lived in temporary accommodation complete with all its drab associations.

Anthony had lunch at his combined room. Steak piping hot, hot plate, greasy potatoes and cabbage. And after this he lay on his bed and slept. Not sleep exactly. A worried, giddy, dim consciousness of his own cold legs, the warm pillow, the milkman’s cart outside, an occasional little shriek from an opening gate, the rapping of quick heels on the pavement, coming from afar and fading abruptly around a corner… (p.158)

While the hopeful ending might feel a little sentimental for some Hamilton enthusiasts, I loved it for its warmth and idealism.

In summary, this is a charming novel for fans of this writer’s work. Probably not the best one to try if you’re a newbie – The Slaves of Solitude or Hangover Square would be my recommendations there.

Summer Crossing by Truman Capote (written in the 1940s, published posthumously in 2005)

This vivid, eloquent novel – Capote’s first – revolves around seventeen-year-old Grady, the beautiful, headstrong daughter of the privileged McNeil family. In many ways, it is a coming-of-age story as Grady’s sexuality is exposed in the blistering heat of a New York summer.

Her everyway hair was like a rusty chrysanthemum, petals of it loosely falling on her forehead, and her eyes, so startlingly set in her fine unpolished face, caught with wit and green aliveness all atmosphere. (p. 51)

When the McNeils set sail for France, Grady is left alone in her parents’ luxurious apartment for the season, determined to make the most of her new-found freedom. The tensions between Grady and her mother, Lucy, are apparent from the start. While Lucy has plans for her daughter’s future introduction to society, Grady herself has other ideas, preferring instead to throw herself into an impassioned love affair with Clyde, a Jewish parking attendant from Brooklyn.

With his rough background and lack of prospects, Clyde is most definitely not the type of man the McNeils would approve of, in spite of his earlier stint in the forces. Closer to their social circle is Peter Bell, a charming, sophisticated young chap who has known Grady since childhood. To complicate matters further, Peter is in love with Grady, a notion that has only just begun to dawn on the young girl herself.

As one might expect, the story plays out in striking fashion, building to a startling denouement that leaves an indelible mark. The contrast between the social classes is a key theme here, as is the impetuous nature of youth, a time when everything seems carefree, untethered and lacking in permanence. For a debut novel, it’s very impressive, hinting at the greatness of Capote’s output in the years to follow. The prose, in particular, is beautiful and lyrical, perfectly capturing the passion of Grady’s emotions alongside a vivid sense of place.

She would stay all afternoon and sometimes until it was dark. But it was never dark there: the lights that had been running all day grew yellow at dusk, white at night, and the faces, those dream-trapped faces, revealed their most to her then. Anonymity was part of the pleasure, but while she was no longer Grady McNeil, she did not know who it was that replaced her, and the tallest fires of her excitement burned with a fuel she could not name. (pp. 24-25)

I thoroughly enjoyed this early glimpse into Capote’s world, a novel that elegantly explores how the choices we make in the inexperience of adolescence may have profoundly damaging consequences in the weeks and months that follow.

Summer Crossing is published by Penguin, Monday Morning by Abacus; personal copies.

Craven House by Patrick Hamilton

As some of you may know, I have fondness for books featuring the great British boarding house – an interest sparked by novels such as Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross, The Boarding-House by William Trevor, and perhaps the greatest of them all, The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton.

Craven House, a fledgling novel by the aforementioned Hamilton, fits right into this groove, set as it is in a West London boarding house during the early part of the 20th century. While Craven isn’t as polished as Hamilton’s later work – he was only twenty-two when the book was first published in 1926 – there is still much to enjoy here, particularly in the use of the setting as a vehicle for fiction.

In some ways, Craven House could be thought of as a collection of character studies, an exploration of the lives and traits of the somewhat disparate group of individuals who inhabit this dwelling. While very little actually happens in the way of plot – the book reads like a sequence of episodes or occurrences – there is much to treasure in the characterisation, especially in relation to the younger residents of the house.

Craven House is owned and managed by the tireless Miss Hatt, an outwardly amiable individual who has the general bearing of a ‘merry sparrow taking the sun’. Also crucial to the establishment – in terms of standing if not ownership – are Mr and Mrs Spicer, long-term friends of Miss Hatt’s from her school days. Mr Spicer is ‘In Tea’, although quite what that means in practice remains a bit of a mystery. Nevertheless, The Spicers like to think of themselves as a respectable middle-aged couple, a notion typified by the following passage on their fondness for walking, particularly on a Sunday morning.

Mr and Mrs Spicer alone remained out of doors, thereby observing one of their most time-sanctioned and inviolable practices – the Sunday morning walk – and regarding themselves as in no small measure an ornament to the neighbourhood in their capacity of a Quiet Middle-aged Couple. For Mr and Mrs Spicer very much liked to advertise themselves as a quiet middle-aged couple – as though quietness was a fine point in their favour, and the world couldn’t keep its middle-aged couples quiet as a rule. (pp. 87-88)

However, initial appearance may be deceptive, and Mr Spicer may not be quite as honourable as his wife thinks. In reality, Mr S has a penchant for attempting to pick up young ladies during his solitary outings to Hyde Park Corner, a practice that lands him in trouble a little later in the book.

Paying guests at the house include twice-widowed Mrs Nixon and her young daughter, Elsie, and recent additions, Major Wildman and his young son, Henry – commonly known as Master Wildman. Finally, the cast is completed by two servants: the cook, Edith and the maid, Audrey, neither of whom quite live up to Miss Hatt’s somewhat unrealistic expectations of domestic staff. Nevertheless, Edith – a blotchy woman with the demeanour of a ‘Dickens character’ – proves herself to be an efficient cook, while Audrey seems pleasant enough, to begin with at least.

The first section of the novel deals with the years immediately leading up to the Great War, a time when the traditional customs of Edwardian society were starting to crumble. Hamilton excels at capturing the sense of ennui in Craven House, the interminable mealtimes and stilted conversations in the drawing-room, especially as the guests attempt to get to know the new arrivals. In this scene, the residents are taking tea on a Sunday afternoon.

‘Oh – ah – yes. Possibly,’ said the Major, and the company’s blushes were rescued half in cheek, by the clanging of the gong for tea, which was followed by the appearance of an Audrey labouring under a large tray; which was followed by the appearance of a dumb waiter containing the thinnest bread and butter conceivable, swiss roll and plum cake; which was followed by much fuss and bother, uncanny feats of balancing (Mr Spicer sliding across the floor, tea-cup in hand, as though it were an egg-and-spoon race), and the extreme little-gentlemanliness of Master Wildman, who handed things round; (p.90-91)

It is the small details Hamilton focuses on here, the petty grievances and tensions that ensue when individuals with different habits come together under one roof. The Major, used to having hot water to hand at any time of day or night, takes it upon himself to have a bath early in the evening, a slot usually reserved for Mrs Nixon – a move that creates some commotion in the house.

Perhaps the two residents who get on best are the playful Master Wildman and the obedient Elsie Nixon, a charming, amiable girl who finds a friend in her young companion. The pair play cards together during the evenings to pass away the time. One day, they even manage to escape the clutches of the tyrannical Mrs Nixon to visit the shops for an hour or two, an episode that lands Elsie in considerable trouble on her return. The relationship between these two children is very touchingly portrayed.

The Great War is touched on very briefly, mostly to capture the darkness and uncertainty of the time. Only Mr Spicer is directly involved in the war effort, and even his particular contribution is less than spectacular following a rather short spell of action in France.

Mr Spicer’s services to his country were, we are inclined to believe, something in the nature of a burden to both parties concerned. (p. 166)

Hamilton saves some of his best set-pieces for the novel’s final act, an extended section in which we return to Craven House six years after the end of the war. By this time, Master Wildman is in his early twenties, with Elsie Nixon following just a few years behind, worshipping her dear friend from close quarters. While Elsie longs to spread her wings a little in the hope that Master Wildman will fall for her, the dictatorial Mrs Nixon is having none of it, determined as she is to maintain a fierce hold over Elsie and everything she does.

‘Can I have my hair bobbed, Mother?’ asks Elsie. ‘No, you can not, Miss,’ says Mrs Nixon. ‘We’ll have none of these modern airs here.’ (p. 179)

Mrs Nixon is, needless to say, hale and hearty, and exuding a glad confidence in complete domination of her daughter or any other rebellious event or person likely to tackle her. (p. 180)

By this point, a new paying guest has also taken up residence at Craven House, the somewhat eccentric yet charming Mrs Hoare, an elderly lady who ‘employs flattery with a trowel’. One of Mrs Hoare’s most delightful habits involves her referring to various items by their initial letters, a practice that causes more than a little confusion and amusement amongst the residents. For instance, ‘Ell’ for Love, ‘Bee’ for Bed and ‘Doubleyou’ for Master Wildman. Elsie is very fond of Mrs Hoare – as is Master Wildman, although he cannot help but poke fun at her too, albeit in a rather gentle way.

As the novel draws towards its conclusion, the simmering tensions apparent within the house culminate in a couple of dramatic outbursts. One involving the Spicers when Mrs S discovers precisely what her husband has been getting up to while her back has been turned; the other concerning Miss Hatt, who seems close to a breakdown after fifteen years in charge of the establishment. There is also a wonderful contretemps between Miss Hatt and Audrey (the maid) when the latter has the audacity to answer back to her employer following a rebuke over her tardiness. Naturally, Miss Hatt is stunned by the outrage, so much so that she decides ‘Audrey Must Go’. In spite of these dramas, there is a happy ending of sorts for two of the house’s inhabitants, a nice touch amid the darkness of the environment.

Viewed in its entirety, Craven House is perhaps best suited to Hamilton enthusiasts. The novel itself is rather baggy, and some of the characters a little underdeveloped – Miss Hatt, Mrs Spicer and Mrs Nixon, in particular. At times, the prose is somewhat protracted and overwrought, a point that Hamilton himself was conscious of when he looked back at the work a little later in his career.

Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see the early genesis of some of this author’s favourite themes here – particularly his preoccupation with the boarding house milieu and his interest in individuals who seem to carry an inner sense of loneliness and self-doubt. In some ways, Craven House could be viewed as a bit of a trial run for one of Hamilton’s later books, the utterly brilliant The Slaves of Solitude, one of the highlights of my reading year back in 2014.

Craven House is published by Abacus; personal copy.

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.

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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.