All week Gaskella has been hosting the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week and I’m just in time to join in.
Beryl Bainbridge (1934 – 2010) was made a Dame in 2000. She wrote 18 novels, three of which were filmed, two collections of short stories, several plays for stage and television, and many articles, essays, columns and reviews. Five of her novels were nominated for the Booker Prize, but none of them won it. Years ago I read two of her books, historical novels, one being According to Queenie, a novel about the life of Samuel Johnson as seen through the eyes of Queeney, Mrs Thrale, and the other Master Georgie, set in the Crimean War telling the story of George Hardy, a surgeon.
This week I’ve read A Quiet Life, first published in 1976 before she wrote her historical novels.
Synopsis from the book jacket:
Alan, a schoolboy living in a seaside village after the war, is concerned about the behaviour of his sister Madge. She has been seen talking to a German prisoner on the beach. Gradually her nightly disappearances affect the whole household. The parents become bitterly estranged, the wireless is turned up full volume so the neighbours won’t hear the rows and the slamming of doors. Inexorably, Alan’s conscience and his love for his family lead to disaster. Does time distort or clarify events in the past? After twenty years can one ever be sure they took place at all?
I didn’t know before I read it that it is a semi-autobiographical novel, using her own childhood and background as source material. I was struck immediately by the claustrophobic atmosphere pervading the novel. The family live in a small house, their living arrangements reduced by the fact that the rooms were full of furniture and ornaments and they kept the freezing cold lounge just for visitors of which they had very few. And Alan had to have his mother’s permission to use the dining room to do his homework. They lived on top of each other in the kitchen where the armchairs in front of the fire made it difficult to enter and move about.
Most of the time they spent escaping from the house – Father to the garden, Mother out, thought by Father to be having an affair, Alan to school, church or youth club and Madge to the pinewoods or to the beach with her German. As Madge says Alan ‘keeps everything bottled up, … anything for a quiet life.’ Whereas Alan realised that Madge ‘came out with things for precisely the reasons he hid them – to avoid embarrassment.’
Alan’s embarrassment is increased when he gets a girlfriend, Janet and is made worse by Madge’s behaviour – she gets away with much worse than he ever can. There are some wonderfully vivid scenes, such as Alan scrambling up a sand dune and seeing Madge and the German caressing each other behind a small hillock. Then there is Father hurling the arm of his father-in-law’s chair out of the house onto the lawn, followed by him manhandling the chair out of the house, lurching across the grass with it to the greenhouse and then setting fire to it. The whole episode is rendered farcical when his false teeth fly out of his mouth into the fire and Mother squealed with laughter, the sound carrying across the ‘bleak and desolate gardens.’
There’s pathos and dark humour and I found it moving and disturbing. Madge in particular seemed a problem for her parents and Alan, at one time manipulative and at another understanding and sympathetic. It expresses the pain of living with parents who don’t get on, the frustrations caused by rigid code of behaviour and class structure of the period, the shame they would suffer if the neighbours ever discovered what was happening, and the rows, stress and unhappiness they all endured.
I was interested to know more about the book and found this fascinating interview between Beryl Bainbridge and Anthony Clare in August 1983. I was intrigued to hear that so many of the descriptions and incidents in A Quiet Life were based on her own experiences. In fact she said that her creative urge was fuelled by what happened to her and from the age of 9 or 10 she had started to write about her parents and her background. She described herself as a child as an ‘awkward little devil‘, and I could see so much of that in the character of Madge – even down to the bad cough she could bring on at will.
My verdict: A brilliant book. She doesn’t waste any words, but still clearly sets the scene, portraying the everyday dilemmas, disasters and scandals of her eccentric characters. I’ll be reading as many more of her books that I can find.