Having the knowledge that Beryl Bainbridge’s novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the understanding that the novel was listed as one of the 100 greatest novels of all time by The Observer can consciously and unconsciously color the reader’s immediate expectations when approaching her novel for the first time. Such expectations would most likely be high. But having such high expectations beforehand might lead the reader to become overly critical in their reading, and thereby potentially lose the respect Bainbridge’s novel deserves.
Bainbridge’s novel is best described as a madcap satire, not the kind of story one would immediately associate with such a lauded book. The pairing of British flatmates Freda and Brenda within the setting of a bottle factory during the 1970s has an American counterpart with the relationship between Laverne and Shirley. Like the many adventures Laverne and Shirley experience, the escapades involving Freda and Brenda are not meant to be taken seriously, often involving crazy solutions to the various problems they face. As a result, these situations are funny in the sense that they’re so fantastical and unrealistic. Bainbridge’s novel is meant to be read this way as well.
Yet at times, Bainbridge can make this difficult, by actively playing with the reader’s sensibilities. When her novel transitions into a kind of murder mystery, something akin to Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, she takes turns that could easily be read as excessive, at times even bordering on horrific, sentiments that are only heightened by the vividness of her writing. Part of her dark, comedic satire plays with readers’ preconceived notions of what’s real and unreal through her use of outrageous exaggeration. While the turn of events is not entirely unexpected given the imagery and tone associated with the novel’s opening scene, the contrast of melancholy tradition and its highly irregular variation at the novel’s close is not an image that’s easily forgotten.
The novel’s dark humor is aided by the quick pace of Bainbridge’s storytelling. One scene flows readily into another, and she adroitly groups the characters in interesting ways. Yet despite the story’s speed, Bainbridge somehow manages to create lasting comedic images within the mind’s eye. This is in part due to her characterization of her novel’s cast of characters and the way she dispels information. She is clever in her use of detail, offering just enough to entice and even beguile the reader. The novel ends with a stated confession of guilt. However, Bainbridge offers enough details that can allow the reader to question the veracity of this potentially neat conclusion. In a way, Bainbridge seems to also be satirizing the traditional endings readers usually associate with British mysteries. She arguably allows the reader to assume the role of detective to more effectively determine what really happened during that outing.
One might not expect much from a short madcap satirical novel, yet Bainbridge has provided readers with an interesting and solid work.
Copy provided by NetGalley