Title: The Bottle Factory Outing
Author: Beryl Bainbridge
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
What a strange book!
I mean that in the best way possible. I absolutely adored it. Dame Beryl Bainbridge used a slight, understated writing style that enhanced the comedic elements of The Bottle Factory Outing, first published in 1974. This is my second book by her, and both managed to be laugh-out-loud funny throughout tragedy. By all accounts, she was an original character herself, and this novel pulls semi-autobiographical aspects of her life into the plot.
Brenda and Freda share a bedsit and work together in a wine bottling factory. The factory is owned by Mr. Paganotti, who is revered by the myriad of Italian workers. Most of the workers don’t speak much English and treat Brenda and Freda with a ridiculous level of deferential respect.
The factory manager, Rossi, pursues Brenda in a cringe-worthy way. He corners her in rooms and chases her around dusty furniture in storage at the factory; she is too polite to tell him to leave her alone, too polite to even avoid him. But it’s hard not to feel bad for him. His reverence for Mr. Paganotti is excessive and is his ultimate downfall. In one sad anecdote, he recalls that Mr. Paganotti had invited him to see his house one day. Rossi dressed up for the occasion, but Mr. Paganotti forgot all about it and left without so much of a mention to Rossi. Mr. Paganotti often forgets things, doesn’t always follow up on his promises, but still the workers admire him. His charity is meager: a box of old clothes on the factory floor for the workers to pick through, directly next to a box for them to deposit payment for whatever they take.
Brenda separated from her abusive husband, ran away to London from her rural life on his farm, and met Freda while crying at a butcher’s shop. Where Brenda is pathologically nice to the point that she won’t say what she is really thinking, Freda is confrontational, abrupt, assertive, often yelling. They are two opposites who sleep in the same bed, separated, at Brenda’s insistence, by a divider of books lined up in the middle of the mattress.
The action is punctuated by bizarre little scenes. For instance, Brenda recalls that her mother-in-law leaned in to kiss her at her wedding but instead bit her ear, would sneak into the chicken coop and draw faces on the eggs with a Biro (ball-point pen), and once locked Brenda in a barn with a bunch of geese. Someone tries to shoot Brenda, but it’s softened by comic relief. Brenda, with her typical mousiness, believes that she deserves all of this as she has done a million wrongs in her head. She is so afraid of offending anyone that she lies constantly, saying whatever she thinks the person she is talking to wants to hear. Freda reminds her that she is pathetic and born a victim, but Brenda can’t help it.
As the title suggests, Freda plans an outing for the workers, including Vittorio, Mr. Paganotti’s nephew, to whom she is attracted. Things don’t go as planned. They never do. This is a very funny book, but it steadily builds a sense that something awful is about to happen. Even after it happens, the tone remains light. The reader knows rationally how horrible it all is, but still Bainbridge can make us laugh.
I’ve never read anything quite like Bainbridge’s novels and am not even sure of how to recommend her. The Bottle Factory Outing is definitely dark comedy, but it’s unique in a way that could be off-putting. The characters are realistic; the tragedy is that we can recognize ourselves in Brenda or Freda, in Rossi or Vittorio. They’re pathetic people who are trying their best in a flawed world, one that’s hard to make sense of at the best of times, impossible to understand at the worst of times. Still, the characters try. And, maybe, that’s why I’d recommend reading Beryl Bainbridge; she reminds you to keep smiling through life’s tragedies.