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 go increasingly awry. Met at the airport by the official interpreter, Olga Fiodorovna, the group quickly becomes aware that their stay will be much too well-organized. An attractive, stylishly dressed woman, the interpreter is also domineering, high-handed, and officious. Finding in Olga Fiodorovna an unpleasant tendency to lecture on the glories of Russian history and landscape, her charges often long to be left to fend for themselves in this alien land. Within the group, only Douglas questions the careful shepherding she provides for her charges. His earlier suspicions that the little entourage of English artists will not be entirely free on their two-week tour of Russia is heightened by the absence of Nina on the first day of the tour. Olga explains Nina’s absence as a response to an impromptu luncheon invitation from Boris Shabelsky, a Russian artist and an acquaintance of Nina. Later that day, Olga attributes Nina’s continued absence to ill health; according to Olga, Nina is resting in a sanatorium and will join the group later in Leningrad.
Bernard and Enid readily accept these explanations, even when Nina’s stay in the sanatorium lengthens into days, and she fails to join her friends in Leningrad. For Douglas, however, Nina’s continued absence and his inability to get in touch with her become concrete proof of the contradictions between what their official interpreter says and the reality of how things are. Torn by longing for Nina and distressed at the strangeness of his surroundings, Douglas begins to see the events of each day in a sinister light.
For Douglas at least, contradiction and confusion seem to abound. Douglas questions a mysterious and inconclusive phone call from an unknown “Boris”—was it simply a mistake, a caller who had the wrong number, or was the caller Shabelsky with a message from or about Nina? There are other confusing events. Apparently mistaken by his Russian hosts for Nina’s husband, the brain surgeon, Douglas is taken to a hospital to view an operation. As he surveys the scene in the operating chamber, Douglas...
(The entire section is 2075 words.)