Beryl Bainbridge

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bainbridge, Beryl 1933–

Bainbridge is an English novelist, playwright, and essayist. Her fictional world is a drab, claustrophobic one, peopled by unhappy, unlucky denizens of the lower middle class. The dreariness of subject and setting is, however, relieved by her satiric wit and spirited dialogue. (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 5, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Julia O'Faolain

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Muting her technique to match her subject, [in "A Quiet Life" Beryl Bainbridge] works with the sly precision of a trap. Early on she plants a foreboding that something explosive is stirring beneath the surface of her characters' lives. They are a family of four living on the west coast of Britain shortly after World War II. There are still undetected mines in the woods and father wears his air raid warden's uniform for doing odd jobs. The obsolete gear draws ironic attention to the difficulties of parrying crossfire on the domestic front.

Events are seen through the eyes of Alan, the high-strung 17-year-old son, whose defense against unwelcome news is a refusal to hear. "I don't want to know," he says. "Shut up." "I'm not listening."

But secrets trickle out. Because the reader knows only what Alan knows, learning things in driblets, he shares the boy's sense of shock….

These are quiet lives and she portrays them without narrative pyrotechnics. Tragedy comes in subdued guise and brings no sense of release. What happens is that Alan's father dies of a heart attack brought on partly by marital jealousy, partly by his family's indifference and, most immediately, by Alan's exasperated lapse into candor to tell him that mother has no lover and only leaves the house at night to sit in the station waiting room. "'She can't stand being in the same room with you,' cries Alan…. 'You make her flesh creep.'"…

Murderers in Mrs. Bainbridge's novels are never brought to book. This time she goes further than before in stripping down the murder-story mechanism until all that is left is the build-up of suspense and suspicion that goads readers to try assigning blame. But censoriousness boomerangs. Responsibility here is too diffuse to be pinned on anyone unless we set up standards by which it would be uncomfortable to live. The author's trap closes as neatly on the reader as it did on Alan. Moral murders like that of his father must be common in quiet lives.

The novel itself is quiet: a feat of concealed craft. It is hard to deal with semi-articulate people without either short-changing them or boring the reader, and it must have been harder still to tell the story through the consciousness of someone as fact-shy as Alan. Mrs. Bainbridge turns the disability into a tool. Alan's flinching apprehension speeds the pace and gives it a life-like rhythm. His strobe-light vision allows sharp focus, flashes of intelligence and believable returns to bewilderment. Clothes define their wearer: trays of paste jewelry for sad, aspiring mother; impenetrable vests for the girl with whom Alan fails to find passion in the woods; the incongruous old A.R.P. uniform for father to die as he lived, a misfit. Twenty-five years later, when Alan has become a replica of his parents, the anarchic Madge, still refusing the bonds of adulthood, turns up in a school coat.

Such devices help Mrs. Bainbridge catch the essential selves of her lower middle-class people, while respecting their reticence. Her ear for speech seems to me perfect. Her 1940's are authentically drab but returning to them in her company is a delight. She is a subtle and protean writer.

Julia O'Faolain, "Getting Away with Murder," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 20, 1977, p. 6.

Claire Tomalin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Binny [protagonist of Injury Time ] …, mother of three, husbandless, in her mid-forties, is not the first Beryl Bainbridge heroine to be afflicted with an indignant sense that her life is not under control—her own or anyone else's. At times indignation rises to terror though more often it's...

(The entire section is 3,907 words.)