Beryl Bainbridge

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Beryl Bainbridge World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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,...

(The entire section is 1,564 words.)