Beryl Bainbridge’s ninth novel, Winter Garden, is set in Russia, but the principal characters are English, and the novel’s concerns transcend nationality. Douglas Ashburner, an admiralty lawyer, accompanies three English artists, including his lover Nina St. Clair, on a tour of Russia, sponsored by the Russian Artists’ Union. In the course of the tour, the rather ordinary, middle-aged Ashburner is confronted with the contradictions—the lack of certainty—that seem to characterize modern existence everywhere. Throughout the novel, the ordinary and the bizarre intermingle to a dizzying degree. Contradiction infuses every aspect of the novel: plot, characterization, and theme. Even Bainbridge’s style, which is characterized by a deft balancing of the humorous and the sinister, contributes to the message that life is never quite what it seems.
Reinforcing this particular message, the plot revolves around the tension between expectation and realization. For each of the visitors, Russia is not quite what he or she expected; but the problem is particularly acute for Douglas, whose expectations of golden moments with Nina are dashed almost from the start. Arriving at the airport, he is greeted offhandedly by Nina, who is feeling slightly ill and will make no promises about their sleeping arrangements during the tour. To make matters worse, the balding, conventional Ashburner is uncomfortable with the other artists: Bernard Douglas, a loud, outspoken man; and Enid Dwyer, a rather neutral woman, who is somewhat enamored of Bernard. Once the group is on the plane, Bernard takes the seat beside Nina, and Douglas must sit with Enid, who clearly wishes to be elsewhere. Later, when the group arrives at the airport in Moscow, Douglas’ unhappiness is compounded by the fact that his luggage is missing. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable with his unconventional compatriots, Ashburner wonders why he has left his home and his wife to come to Mother Russia, which appears cold, uncomfortable, and dull.
Although Bainbridge tends to keep the traditional British distance between herself and her character, her sympathies clearly lie with Ashburner, and much of the action is presented from his point of view. Manipulated in his marriage, Douglas is equally inept in his love affair, and this journey seems to offer the first hope for a comfortable liaison with Nina. Since Nina constantly stresses the need for keeping their relationship secret from her husband, a famous brain surgeon, Douglas has had to make love to her in awkward places and positions—often standing up. Once Nina even hides her lover in a closet to keep his whereabouts secret from her husband—who never appears. With the dampening of his hopes for golden evenings with Nina, Ashburner’s spirit sink; he thinks of his wife whom he cares about, although he knows she sees him in much the same light as the family dog—dependable, but incapable of independent action.
From Douglas’ point of view, matters...
(The entire section is 2,124 words.)