Beryl Bainbridge’s novels run the gamut from thinly veiled autobiographical fiction to the strange and macabre world of murder and madness. For this reason, it is sometimes difficult for critics to provide a clear overview of her work. Nevertheless, for all their variety, Bainbridge’s works do share certain characteristic stylistic and thematic concerns.
All of the novels carry a strong sense of place, created through the use of specific and minute details. Several of Bainbridge’s books, for example, are set in postwar Liverpool. Bainbridge knows this setting well because she was a teenager in Liverpool during these same years. The depiction of working-class Liverpool is heartbreaking in its accuracy; bombed-out, gritty, and cold, Liverpool and its residents struggled through the late 1940’s and 1950’s to regain their footing. Her work is not restricted to Liverpool, however. Bainbridge is equally on target with her descriptions of the Antarctic in The Birthday Boys, the bridge of the Titanic in Every Man for Himself, and eighteenth century England in According to Queeney.
What is particularly striking is that Bainbridge’s strong and accurate evocation of place is accompanied by her ability to push the edges of narrative reliability. That is, she makes certain in her work that her reader can never be sure that the narrative voice of the novel speaks the truth. For Bainbridge, it seems, there really is no one truth, but rather competing voices, pushing individual perceptions of truth toward the reader.
Many of Bainbridge’s books provide dark humor, something that produces unease in readers. She juxtaposes death and tragedy with scenes that provoke laughter. In An Awfully Big Adventure, the main character drops the flashlight that represents Tinker Bell in a production of Peter Pan; the consternation of the children in the audience is terrible, yet funny. At the same time, one of the main characters is committing suicide offstage.
Bainbridge’s characters also tend toward the quirky, eccentric, and pathological. Rarely in her novels do readers encounter truly sympathetic characters, but her characters are rich in their complexity. Like real people, they exhibit both good and bad judgment as well as compassion and coldheartedness. Complicated and complex, Bainbridge’s characters are often not likable, but they are always interesting.
The Bottle Factory Outing
The Bottle Factory Outing, which earned for Bainbridge her first Booker Prize nomination as well as the Guardian Fiction Award in 1974, is a story of two women, Brenda and Freda, who work in a bottle factory. Bainbridge used her own experiences for this novel, having worked briefly in a bottle factory when she was younger. Although the events of the novel are purely fiction, the details are based on an actual factory environment.
Brenda is quiet, nervous, and altogether unremarkable, while Freda is bossy and manipulative. When Freda...
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