Tag Archives: Beryl Bainbridge

The Very Dead of Winter by Mary Hocking

Like many other bloggers and readers, I first discovered Mary Hocking through Ali’s sterling efforts in championing her work over the past couple of years. While she seems very much her own writer, Hocking shares something in common with some of her forerunners and contemporaries – fellow British authors such as Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor (possibly Beryl Bainbridge too, although I’m still relatively new to her work). In The Very Dead of Winter, she demonstrates a keen eye for social situations, especially those which highlight the tensions and mismatches that often emerge in family life. There is so much black humour in this novel too, but I’ll come back to that point a little later in my review.

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As the novel opens, Florence and her grown-up daughter, Anita, are driving to a fairly isolated country cottage where they will be joining the rest of their family to spend Christmas in the snow. The cottage has been in the family for several years and is now owned by Sophia, Florence’s sister – the two sisters have rarely spoken to one another in the last thirty years, a point that becomes quite significant as their story unfolds. Also present at the cottage are Florence’s husband, Konrad, and the couple’s son, Nicholas. Konrad has been ill for some time, and it is clear from the start of the novel that he has only a few days left to live.

Florence and Anita are both rather self-centred; they attack one another at every opportunity and give very little thought to Konrad as he lies in bed upstairs. Florence, a domineering and manipulative woman at the best of times, seems unable to face up to the fact that her husband is dying. All her life she has occupied a central position in the family – first as a daughter and then as a wife and mother. Now she is fearful of a future on the margins, the lonely existence of a widow cut adrift from the activity of life. Sophia, on the other hand, is very different to Florence; a more insightful and sensitive woman than her sister, Sophia is much more attuned to Konrad’s needs, tending to him as passes through the final phase of his life. As the story moves forward, old grudges, resentments and family secrets come tumbling out of the closet, all of which add to the tension within the cottage.

As she looked at her sister, Florence was aware of anger always simmering inside her, an anger which sometimes boiled up unaccountably. Ever since she could remember, Sophia had looked as if she had started late for an appointment the purpose of which she had already forgotten. It astonished Florence that despite this she had never actually come to grief. […]

And yet, they were not unalike. There were times, brief flashes rather than occasions, when Florence was aware that at some level they understood each other perfectly. This was not a comforting insight. (pg. 102)

In truth, Florence has shown very little interest in her husband’s life over the past thirty years. As a young boy, Konrad had arrived in England as a refugee from Germany, an experience that left him somewhat scarred for life. As an adult with a talent for languages, Konrad had joined the BBC World Service, but in spite of this achievement, he remained something of a disappointment to his wife. With an eye on the glamour of placements in exotic locations, Florence had hoped that her husband would join the Diplomatic Service, but alas this was not to be – as far as Florence was concerned, he had simply let the opportunity slip through his fingers. Moreover, Florence has paid very little attention to Konrad’s interest in painting over the course of their marriage, an activity he enjoyed during weekends away from the family and all the accompanying tensions at home.

The characters and set-up in The Very Dead of Winter provide Hocking with a plenty of opportunities for a macabre style of comedy. There are several acerbic exchanges between Florence and her daughter, Anita, a Child Psychologist who shows very little in the way of empathy or sympathy for other people, especially children. Anita also comes to the fore when her brother shows an interest in Frances, a young neighbour of Sophia’s whom the two siblings visit during their stay. Nicholas is a geologist, forever thinking of his next expedition to a faraway land. By nature he is something of a loner, wary of getting entangled with other people, both their lives in general and their emotions.

‘Cocoa will do nicely,’ Nicholas said.

Anita looked at him pityingly. What did he think he was going to get out of this – the thrill of entering a forbidden temple? As Frances heated  milk on the stove, Anita studied her, making mental jottings – unusually composed for her age: although she is nervous she doesn’t allow herself to be hustled; emotionally reserved, but she can still look at Nicholas as if she is making a votive offering of this bloody cocoa; sexually unfulfilled, neither child nor woman. I wouldn’t want to deal with her and Nicholas certainly shouldn’t be allowed to. (pg. 27)

The novel comes complete will a raft of darkly comic scenes in which members of this dysfunctional family rub up against one another in this time of heightened emotions.

Alongside the humour, there are quieter moments too, insightful reflections on the nature of life and the challenges of adapting to change and loss especially as one grows older. In the passage below, Sophia’s neighbour, Thomas, contemplates his own situation. Florence has taken rather a shine to this gentle widower, viewing him as a potential partner once Konrad has passed away. For his part, Thomas is still mourning the loss of his own wife and son, the latter from a tragic act that has left a deep mark. The aforementioned Frances lives with Thomas – a relative by marriage, she takes care of Thomas and his young grandson, Andrew. Both Frances and Thomas are rather vulnerable in their individual ways. Nevertheless, Thomas knows the time will come when Frances must be encouraged to leave the nest, however painful that experience might turn out to be.

Thomas, washing up the coffee cups, reflected that not the least of the things she [Frances] had done for him was to save him from such as Florence. He was a proud man whose independence was important to him. The possibility that Frances might go – indeed should be encouraged to go whenever the time was right for her – leaving him to become the object of pity and calculation was more than distasteful, it was frightening. There was Andrew to consider. He had known several men who had made disastrous second marriages for the sake of their children. For a moment, as he dried the cups and trod in Jasper’s lunch bowl, he felt threatened as never before. (pgs. 107-108)

While I didn’t love this novel quite as much as the Taylors and Pyms I’ve read to date, I did enjoy it a great deal. There is plenty of wicked fun to be had in the company of these rather fractured characters, all of whom are painted with sufficient depth and insight to make them feel lifelike (even if some of them are a little grotesque). The novel has a dark quality, almost like a macabre fairy tale, and there are several references to this genre throughout the story. Hocking’s charming descriptions of the snowy landscapes add to the novel’s atmosphere. I couldn’t help but wonder if the images of gnarled and twisted tree trunks devastated by the hurricane of 1987 were a kind of metaphor for these rather damaged individuals and their broken lives.

My thanks to Ali for the copy of this novel which I won in a giveaway – you can read her review here. Caroline has also reviewed it here. This copy was issued by Virago, but Bello will be publishing a lovely new edition on 14th July (one of another 12 novels by Hocking). The new covers are rather beautiful.

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.