Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1564
Bainbridge’s novels, while all very different from one another in subject, share certain characteristics. Certainly, the setting is extremely important in each of the books; indeed, the setting becomes almost another character in many of the novels. For example, a number of the novels are set during World War II or immediately thereafter in Liverpool, England. Liverpool, a dirty, industrial city, was heavily bombed during the war, and its residents lived through extreme deprivation during this time. In Bainbridge’s novels, the lower classes in particular have a difficult time putting food on the table and simply staying warm. In addition, there is a clear depiction of class-consciousness throughout all of the novels set in mid-twentieth century England. Likewise, Bainbridge’s historical fictions also offer realistic and factual details about the times and places in which they are set.
Bainbridge’s characters often share a need for intimate relationships. They are looking for love, but few can find even affection. In particular, Bainbridge’s use of sexual scenes in her books borders on the disturbing. The encounters are never tender, but rather are often darkly humorous, violent, or simply sad. While body parts engage in intimate behavior, it is as if the hearts and minds of the characters are elsewhere. There is a callousness to human interaction in Bainbridge’s novels that is at once heartbreaking and compelling.
Bainbridge’s novels also display a dark humor. Amid the often macabre story lines, she inserts ironies that are funny in spite of their tragic consequences. For example, in An Awfully Big Adventure, Stella plays Tinker Bell in a production of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (pr. 1904, pb. 1928) by holding a flashlight. She hears of the death of a man she is having an affair with just as Peter asks the children in the audience to clap to bring Tinker Bell back to life. Stella drops the flashlight, in effect killing Tinker Bell, and traumatizes the children. Likewise, in The Bottle Factory Outing, it is ironically the character who has planned the outing who winds up murdered. The response of the rest of the characters to the death is both comic and dreadful.
Finally, from Bainbridge’s early novel Harriet Said to her 2001 novel, According to Queeney, the writer has pushed the edges of narrative reliability. She does so in several ways. For one, she pares away all but the most essential details of her stories; in fact, there are times when critics have suggested that she has pared too much away, leading to ruptures in the narrative. Moreover, characters in the novels often see the same events in very different ways. The reader, then, is left in a place of indecision. In The Birthday Boys, for example, the same story is told by explorer Robert Scott and four members of his team. Of the five, who is the most reliable? Which version of the story is to be believed? The use of flashbacks as a structuring device also impacts narrative reliability. Characters who earlier participated in an event will later remember the event in different ways. Thus, which account should be trusted, the “present” interpretation or the flashback? Finally, Bainbridge often uses historical figures as fictional characters. Consequently, each reader will bring to the novel previous knowledge that will butt up against the fictional representation. In novels such as Young Adolf, Bainbridge attempts to create a past for one of the most infamous people in history, Adolf Hitler. That readers find some sympathy for the young Adolf is a tribute to Bainbridge’s skill as a writer. It also demonstrates just how far a narrative can be stretched.
Few contemporary writers are as prolific as Bainbridge, and even fewer can claim the overwhelming critical and public acclaim. Eccentric, innovative, creative, funny, and disturbing, Bainbridge’s work defies simple classification.
An Awfully Big Adventure
First published: 1989
Type of work: Novel
A strange, motherless teenager attempts to find her way amid the colorful characters of a local repertory theater staging Peter Pan in 1950’s Liverpool.
An Awfully Big Adventure is one of Bainbridge’s best-known novels. A film adaptation of the book, directed by Mike Newell and starring Alan Rickman, Hugh Grant, and Georgina Cates, was released in 1995. Bainbridge used her own experiences as a young assistant stage manager in a local Liverpool repertory theater as the backdrop for the story of Stella, a troubled teenager who affects each of the other members of the troupe without realizing it.
The setting of the novel is grim; lower-class life in Liverpool after World War II is depicted as gritty and hard. Stella lives with her uncle and her uncle’s girlfriend, who do their best to care for the young woman who was abandoned by her wild mother some sixteen years earlier. Uncle Vernon wants to save Stella from the fate of so many young women who find themselves working in factories or restaurants when they leave school, and he calls in many favors to secure her a spot at a repertory theater.
The book opens by dropping readers into a scene that they will not understand until much later in the book. Clearly, something is very wrong; Meredith Potter, the troupe director, finds a girl in the props room, a girl who turns out to be the story’s protagonist, Stella. After a brief but angry encounter, Stella runs from the theater, taking refuge in a phone booth outside.
The novel then flashes back to the story of Stella’s first day at the theater and follows through chronologically until it returns to the opening scene. Because the reader knows from the opening pages that something dreadful will happen before the book ends, the entire story is told under a pall.
Each member of the company has his or her own secrets. Stella, who is by all accounts an odd young woman, has a knack for delivering knockout blows without even being aware of it through casual remarks or thoughtless actions. Moreover, each of the characters is in love with the wrong person. Stella, for example, has a crush on Meredith. Although the rest of company knows that he is a homosexual, Stella does not. When Meredith does not return her advances, she has an affair with O’Hara, an older, legendary actor. The affair is meaningless to her, but it has dire consequences for O’Hara, who recognizes in Stella, too late, a woman he loved some sixteen years earlier.
Indeed, the consequences of earlier choices flood the end of the novel. Not one of the characters escapes unscathed from the troupe’s production of Peter Pan. In the final scene, Stella stands in the telephone booth, speaking to a recording of the time she calls “Mother.”
According to Queeney
First published: 2001
Type of work: Novel
The later years of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the famed lexicographer and writer of the eighteenth century, and his relationship with the married Hester Thrale are narrated many years later by Hester’s daughter Queeney.
Most contemporary readers know about Dr. Samuel Johnson through two works: Johnson’s own A Dictionary of the English Language: To Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar (1755) or James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D (1791). Johnson enjoyed fame and notoriety during his own lifetime and continues to be remembered as one of the most important writers of the eighteenth century. In According to Queeney, Bainbridge imaginatively re-creates Johnson’s later years, when he was closely connected to Hester Thrale, the wife of a wealthy brewer.
Bainbridge structures the novel through two narrative voices. The first is a third-person authorial voice that details specific events in the lives of the characters. At the close of each section, a second narrative voice enters, that of Queeney, Hester Thrale’s eldest child. These sections are in the form of letters written long after the described events. Queeney’s interpretation of events is often at odds with the section the reader has just completed. As a result, it is difficult to construe “the truth” of the event. By so constructing her novel, Bainbridge both gives and takes away: Just as the reader settles into the story, the subsequent epistle undermines the narrative itself. Bainbridge thus calls into question the whole notion of historical truth. Rather, she seems to suggest, there are only interpretations.
The Samuel Johnson who emerges from According to Queeney is one beset with emotional difficulties. He clearly suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as mind-robbing depression. At the same time, he shows sympathy and love to young Queeney, something seriously lacking in her life.
Hester Thrale, a woman who bears some ten children, only to lose most of them, is also an enigma. Viewed through Queeney’s eyes, she is a bitter, vicious woman, devoid of any maternal instinct. Readers, however, may find in her a fear of intimacy brought about by her loss of so many of her babies. Her problems with Queeney may stem not from loving her too little but from loving her too much.
The major parts of the novel trace the travels of Johnson and the Thrales across England and throughout Europe. By the end, Johnson has been abandoned by Hester, who has married a young Italian voice teacher after the death of her husband. Johnson dies without seeing her again.