Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Beryl Bainbridge’s novel A Quiet Life begins with middle-aged Alan waiting for his sister Madge to meet him to discuss their mother’s recent death and to take their mother’s ring. Madge refuses this momento of her mother, and Alan slips into a dramatic flashback of his adolescence, which makes up the bulk of the novel.

Alan’s flashback, which takes up eight chapters, portrays his selective memory about his family. Although he reveals the painful slights and emotional injuries incurred and endured by the four family members, there seems to be an unconscious suspension of the deeper realities at home. Perhaps an element of self-pity enters into the picture; Alan’s memories are believable, however, and readers can sense that his inability to dig deeper into his past shields him from greater misery.

The novel’s title—A Quiet Life—seems to be ironic in that the family’s situation does not allow for quietude. In fact, Alan’s home life is disquieting. His memories of his seventeenth year begin with random vignettes of his day-to-day life: He recalls his mother’s constant rearranging of the furniture, the family’s typical tea-time crises, and his sister Madge’s lies about her time away from home. When his maternal grandparents and his paternal aunt arrive for a family gathering, Alan’s flashback becomes more focused. The family’s behaviors exhibited with these extended family members allow the reader to...

(The entire section is 486 words.)