(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bainbridge’s main focus in A Quiet Life is to portray the dissonance and dissolution of a middle-class English family that appears to be happy. Yet the story goes much deeper than that: Bainbridge portrays four members of this family who require their own illusions in order to survive the relationships that exist within the family structure. Her exploration is always presented from Alan’s point of view. Although the story is not presented as a first-person account, the plot is revealed via Alan’s consciousness, thus offering a very personal and far-from-objective treatment.

Early in the book, Alan confronts his sister about her running through the woods to meet the German prisoner-of-war. He points out: “There’s unexploded bombs. . . . You should stay in the house.” Madge replies, “There’s worse things than bombs, you know.” The brother and sister must live carefully at home where so many unexploded emotional bombs are hidden. They are never safe from their parents’ explosive and vindictive actions.

Throughout the narrative, Alan’s relationships with his family and his friends are explored within an aura of guarded detachment. Bainbridge’s text is filled with details that seem to compete with Alan’s pain and longing; the details offer a sharp edge that tends to blunt the reader’s total grasp of Alan’s emotional state. Bainbridge’s choice of detail produces a spare seriocomic effect, underscoring the story’s grotesque quality: “They were having their tea, silent under the hanging flypaper.”

Bainbridge addresses a disquieting silence in this family. For all the carping and sniggering, there is a silence that isolates each family member. That is not to say that there is no conversation, no arguing, no accusations, but there is an element of isolation, of a silence that hangs over the family and paradoxically echoes louder than spoken words: “Someone would retaliate—Madge would interfere, Father would chuck the sugar bowl at the wall, the three of...

(The entire section is 829 words.)