Book Review: South Riding

The details:

Title: South Riding
Author: Winifred Holtby
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1936)
Pages: 502
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

Sarah Burton moves back to the fictional South Riding, in Yorkshire, with an ambitious plan. Having just been appointed the headmistress of the local girl’s high school, she wants to remake it into something spectacular. She was originally from the area, but had moved away, eventually attending university and taking a teaching position in London. But she’s determined not to settle into what might seem inevitable. Sarah wants to form the world for herself. As she arrives back in South Riding, suitcase in hand, she thinks: “I was born to be a spinster, and, by God, I’m going to spin.”

This is a novel about how local government can affect the citizens of a small English town, but it is also about being resolved to make the most of life. While the great institutions are spinning about us, as politicians make plans out of altruism or self-interest, there is Sarah, manipulating the school’s governors into improving the school building. There is Sarah guiding the young girls at her school and teaching them how to go from giggling adolescents to purposeful women. She is adored by the schoolgirls, including Lydia Holly, whose home situation threatens to throw her promising academic career off track, and Midge Carne, daughter of the local landowner, Robert Carne of Maythorpe Hall, the only one of the school’s governors to vote against appointing Sarah as headmistress.

When she arrives in South Riding, Sarah holds a grudge against the gruff, handsome, reserved Robert Carne. Their first one-on-one meeting takes place on a lonely, snowy road with him on horseback, a setting reminiscent of the first meeting between Rochester and his governess in Jane Eyre. Their relationship remains fraught, gradually thawing with each meeting. He has problems of his own; his wife is unwell and has to be kept in a mental hospital at great expense. He fears Midge might be going the same way. Other local politicians are scheming against him, ruining his chances of becoming an alderman in the opening chapter. And the great estate, Maythorpe Hall, is not bringing in the sort of money that will support running it from year-to-year. He is tormented by his past, by the memory of his wife and his behavior towards her.

The cast of characters is large and seems to expand with each chapter. There is the man, a socialist named Joe Astell, who is named alderman instead of Carne. He becomes an ally of Sarah’s, sharing many idealistic beliefs with her. There is also the Alderman Mrs. Beddows, the first woman alderman in South Riding, an indefatigable woman prone to bon mots. She is vocal about her opinions, well-respected by all in the community, and privately nurses disappointments in her personal life. One of Sarah’s favorite quotes is: “‘Take what you want,’ says God. ‘Take it and pay for it.'” Mrs. Beddows wonders, “But who pays?” A note by Holtby at the beginning of the novel serves as an apology to her mother, an alderman very much like Mrs. Beddows, explaining that the character is purely fictional.

South Riding was published posthumously, written by Winifred Holtby while she knew that she was dying. And yet it has a spirit of idealism that I rarely find in literature. Around the middle of the novel, Sarah’s can-do attitude is sharply contrasted with that of a science teacher at the school, Miss Sigglesthwaite. The girls don’t respect her, and she is not capable of inspiring them to learn. She is not unsympathetic, I really felt for her, but she is fighting against life and her personality, in completely the wrong role. Sarah tries to manipulate her into quitting her job. When Miss Sigglesthwaite was younger, she thought about becoming a researcher, but financial circumstances forced her to take a teaching post. She looks at the edge of a cliff as an easy way out–it would look like an accident, as if the ground gave way–but then she reconsiders and decides to go on teaching. She has a pessimistic acceptance of the way things are. Sarah, on the other hand, refuses to accept that the way things are now is the way they must continue to be. She can change the world around her. She takes responsibility for her choices and for the consequences of her actions.

We’re so busy resigning ourselves to the inevitable that we don’t even ask if it is inevitable. We’ve got to have courage, to take our future into our hands. If the law is oppressive, we must change the law. If tradition is obstructive, we must break tradition. If the system is unjust, we must reform the system.

And that is the message the reader should take from this extraordinary novel. The world is ours to shape, if we would but make the effort.

Book Review: The Light Years

The details:

Title: The Light Years (Cazalet Chronicle #1)
Author: Elizabeth Jane Howard
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1990)
Pages: 448
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

This is another review it has taken me a long time to write. I felt like I should have loved this book, but I was mostly ambivalent about it. The various subplots read like very short stories following one character and then another. The large cast of characters will probably serve the author well in the coming books in the series, but The Light Years seemed like the setup to something else. The end of the book was anticlimactic; it had been building up to World War II, but instead ended with Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. There’s no big event to center the novel, no pivot to connect all of the various threads of the story.

The Light Years, by Elizabeth Jane Howard, begins with a very useful list of members of the Cazalet Family and their households. The elder Cazalets, dubbed The Brigg and Duchy, live in the countryside with their unmarried daughter, Rachel. Hugh, the eldest son, is married to Sybil; Edward, the middle son, is married to Villy; and Rupert, the youngest, is now married to Zoe after the death of his first wife. Zoe isn’t very fond of her step-children, and it remains a mystery for most of the book why they married. He loves her because she is beautiful. She isn’t very fulfilled in her married life. Edward and Villy play the part of a happily married couple to the outside world, but Edward is having an affair and does something so unforgivable during the course of the novel that I can only call him a creep and hope that he doesn’t play a large role in the next book. My favorites were Hugh and Sybil, the only seemingly happy couple.

Between the three brothers, there are a large number of children populating this novel. Describing each of their plot lines would make this an unwieldy review, so just suffice to say that Howard is extremely talented at giving each child a distinct personality and at using the child’s perspective for comedic effect. One of my favorite characters was Miss Milliment, one time governess to Villy and now teacher to the younger generation of girls. She has excellent taste in literature and was one of the most sympathetic characters.

Some plots don’t go anywhere, such as a brief interlude involving Hugh’s maid being fired and conducting a heartless deed on her way out of the house. I suppose the point was that there are some very awful people in the world, but it seemed pointless and unnecessary. I think it’s a sign of how I felt about the book that, months after finishing, the points I can remember most vividly are when the characters behave particularly badly. I liked this book, but I’m not in a rush to read the second book. I will, eventually, but at the moment there are many other books I feel more enthusiastic about in my to-read pile.

Review Fridays: Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

The details:

Title: Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life
Author: Jonathan Bate
Genre: Biography
Pages: 672
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble 

I spent what seemed like a long time reading this biography, on and off, for the past few months. Jonathan Bate started researching it with the blessing of the late Ted Hughes’s estate, but, before it could be published, his widow didn’t like the direction it was going and decided to withdraw her support. For that reason, it lacks in-depth quotations from Hughes’s work. Bate published a letter in The Guardian newspaper outlining how this changed his finished work. I really wanted to like this biography, in the same way that I really wanted to like Hughes, but failed.

Bate eschews a linear biography in favor of telling the story in an order that he thinks makes sense as it lines up with literary criticism. What comes across, even amid the more lurid details of Hughes’s life, was the immense respect Bate had for Hughes as a poet. However much criticism this biography has received, Bate obviously admires Hughes’s work and has an excellent understanding of it. What was less apparent was what bearing Hughes’s personal life had on the literary parts of the biography. I understood that Bate wanted to tell the full story as he saw it from all of the primary sources he reviewed, but I never could rid myself of the feeling that I was reading two entirely separate works that had been smashed together. Part of it was literary (the best part, in my opinion), and part of it was very disorganized biography.

Hughes was born in Yorkshire, England, and, despite living in other parts of England for the majority of his adult life, seemed to identify most closely with his working-class roots. I think at one point Bate remarks that Hughes’s Yorkshire accent became thicker the more removed he was from his birthplace. Bate portrays him as a child with a deep interest in the natural world around him, the animals and the landscape, and whose passion for nature manifested itself as an adult in fishing trips and in a deep interest in environmental causes. I would have liked to have read details about the latter particularly, and how his interest in the environment impacted his poetry, but this biography focuses much more on Hughes’s other great passion: women.

There are other, better sources to read about Hughes’s tempestuous marriage to Sylvia Plath. Although I am a big fan of Plath, I don’t have a vendetta against Hughes or feel the need to wipe his name off of her gravestone. I hadn’t read much about Hughes before this, beyond what is written in Plath biographies, but Bate’s account gave me the impression that Hughes was merely an extremely handsome (and knew it), indecisive man who never had a problem getting the attention of women. As Bate tells it, Hughes lived very much in the moment, so while he was telling one woman he wanted to set up a life with her one day, and telling another woman the same thing the next week, he was merely living in the moment and really and truly believed what he said to each woman in the moment he said it. One of the positives of this biography is that Bate avoids judging. He presents the facts and lets the reader decide. He doesn’t pontificate on Hughes’s womanizing or offer opinions on the way Hughes handled Plath’s posthumous literary estate.

The closest literary comparison I could think of was Percy Shelley, a biography of whom I reviewed here. Shelley was talented, devoted to political causes, but was inconstant to the women in his life and often treated them poorly. In a sort of reversal of Hughes’s story, he died young and left the job of editing his work to his also very talented wife, Mary Shelley. I wonder if the distance of time will be kind to Hughes, if in a few generations his poetry will be more widely read and appreciated and his personal life overlooked. I do have a better appreciation of Hughes and his poetry after reading this unauthorized biography, but I couldn’t tell you if there are better Hughes biographies to read first. If nothing else, I learned how to pronounce Hughes’s birthplace, Mytholmroyd, correctly.

Review Fridays: Best Poems of Stevie Smith

The details:

Title: Best Poems of Stevie Smith
Author: Stevie Smith
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 160
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

There’s something deceptively simple about Stevie Smith’s poetry. I couldn’t quite figure out what, but I felt like I was missing something as I read a collection of her poetry. Some I really loved, some I admired straight away, but I was always left with the sense that one poem was much like the next. That is not necessarily a bad thing. There are some poets that, given a collection of what is considered their best poetry, you can see the growth throughout the years and subject matter. But Smith is largely consistent. When her poetry is good, funny, relatable, intriguing, or any myriad of adjectives that could be used to describe it, her work is extremely so:

Oh I am a cat that likes to
Gallop about doing good

She is whimsical, like in the poem above about a cat that likes to gallop about doing good. Sometimes, Smith made me smile, but other poems were so Deeply Morbid (quote below) I had an uneasy feeling. I read that, when she would do readings of her poetry, she would sing them. Without knowing that in advance, there was a lyrical nature to her poems that made me read them like songs:

Joan her name was and at lunchtime
Solitary solitary
She would go and watch the pictures
In the National Gallery
All alone all alone
This time with no friend beside her
She would go and watch the pictures
All alone.

The pacing, word repetition, and punctuation (or lack thereof) is excellent. She had a talent for word choice and for mining her own feelings for subject matter. As a brief autobiographical note, Smith struggled with depression for much of her life and had to quit her job as a secretary in London after suffering a nervous breakdown.

Her most famous poem is probably Not Waving but Drowning:

I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.

At a glance, those words are distressing, but Smith manages to make them feel more like a life jacket than a death sentence. A reader might immediately sense that she understands and sympathizes, but her poetry is written in a quirky way that sometimes made me smile through that jolt of sorrow, such as in O Pug!:

Yes, yes, I know,
When your mistress is with you,
When your master
Takes you upon his lap,
Just then, for a moment,
Almost you are not frightened.

But at heart you are frightened, you always have been.

The poems are interspersed with Smith’s drawings, which were just as unusual yet interesting as the poetry itself. I enjoyed Smith’s poetry. It has its own unique style, and I appreciated how she stayed true to it throughout the collection. She never tries to be something she’s not; I never got the feeling that she was imitating another poet or trying to be very literary for the sake of impressing others. Overall, highly recommended.

Review Fridays: The First Violin

The details:

Title: The First Violin
Author: Jessie Fothergill
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1877)
Pages: 580
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Our heroine, May Wedderburn, is the first narrator of Jessie Fothergill’s The First Violin. Her wealthy neighbor, Sir Peter Le Marchant, wants to marry her. Even though her family is poor and the marriage would be advantageous, it is the last thing May wants. She refuses him. May is miserable in her small town life and feels that, if she had a bit of training in music, she could become a teacher and earn her own living. Luck offers May an opportunity to escape. Her blind neighbor, Miss Hallam, is going to the fictional town of Elberthal, Germany, for eye treatments to try to regain some of her sight. She offers to bring May along, both as a companion and so that May can take singing lessons.

At the train station in Cologne, May loses track of Miss Hallam and misses the train to Elberthal. Unable to speak German and lacking money, she feels despondent until she meets a handsome gentleman who happens to be going to Elberthal. They spend a magical afternoon together in Cologne, having lunch and listening to music in the cathedral, before catching the next train to Elberthal. But it turns out that everything was not on the up-and-up with him. He lied about there not being any earlier trains.

May finds him performing in the local orchestra as the first violin. In some embarrassment, May looks down instead of returning his greeting. She lives to regret this decision many times over as the man, Eugen Courvoisier, with his strict moral code, takes this as a sign that May would rather not know him and acts accordingly. He pretends not to know her even when May offers apologies and tries to pay him back the money he spent on her lunch and train ticket. This, to be honest, is the part of the book that strains credulity with me. There are other reasons why Eugen keeps his distance from May, but, for three-quarters of the novel, it seems cruel and makes it difficult to fully like Eugen. As May hopelessly falls in love with the proud Eugen, she finds some consolation in her exceptional talent for singing and her friendship with her singing coach, the town’s musical director, Max von Francius.

Our other narrator is Eugen’s friend and roommate, Friedhelm Helfen. It becomes apparent that Eugen is hiding a past, but Friedel is not the type to ask questions. All he knows is that Eugen has been a great friend to him in a time when he needed one. He also dotes upon Sigmund, Eugen’s stoic, precocious son. The dual narrative brings a different perspective on the inhabitants of Elberthal. I enjoyed reading the quiet moments between the characters. However, drama must win out, and their happy existence cannot last. Friedel and May both make excellent narrators. Friedel is almost too good to be true: loyal and kind to a fault. May’s enthusiasm for life brightens a sometimes depressing story.

My favorite part of the book is an utterly charming scene that takes place on a bridge on the Rhine during a storm. Like other Victorian novels, much of the plotting is left to coincidence and chance. This is one of those rare books that, even though my edition was over 500 pages, I wished there had been an extra 100 pages at the end to wrap up the story. Everything felt rushed in the final few chapters. This was all due to how well the characters were developed; I cared so much about them all that I wanted more. Overall, I enjoyed this Victorian novel set partially in Germany, which showed such a vast appreciation of music.

Review Fridays: The Vagabond

The details:

Title: The Vagabond
Author: Colette
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1910)
Pages: 208
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Renée Néré, the protagonist of Colette’s The Vagabond, wants you to know that she is perfectly fine being alone. She left her husband, a philandering artist whom she loved deeply, and decided to earn her living on the stage. She dances in Vaudeville acts in early 20th-century Paris, living with her bulldog, Fossette, and determinedly avoiding entangling herself in a new relationship. Though it’s not always glamorous, she enjoys her life. Her mentor and dance partner, Brague, is supportive but tough. She describes everyone around her in colorful language. For instance, she says that one of her fellow performers has “a heart like that of a dog without an owner, prepared to love anyone who’ll adopt him.”

Renée is the exact opposite of that. She enjoys spending time with her friend, Hamond, and together they bemoan the tragedies of their failed marriages. But love is forcing its way into her life as, after a performance, Maxime Dufferein-Chautel invades her dressing room. She shoos him away as best she can and dismissively nicknames him the Big Ninny. (I read a newer translation and found out that in the previous translation he was the Big-Noodle, which I think I might prefer.) As time goes on, aided by Hamond, the Big Ninny starts to work his way into Renée’s reluctant heart.

Just as Renée and the Big Ninny seem to be getting closer, Brague tells Renée that he planned a six-week working tour around France for them for a large sum of money, if she’s interested. She decides to go, convincing the Big Ninny not to go along with them, as travelling is not romantic and would not be the best way to test a new relationship. From each stop, she writes the Big Ninny letters, punctuating them with her own thoughts told solely to the reader. By this point, it’s hard not to feel close to Renée, to want what’s best for her, and both the reader and our narrator slowly come to the realization of that future, the only future possible for her. Is that future giving love a second chance with the Big Ninny? Or is it another working tour, this time in South America, with Brague? You’ll have to read it to find out.

Colette wrote The Vagabond in a chatty style that makes Renée feel like a friend, someone you made tea for and who is sitting at your kitchen table, commiserating with you about life without being overly sentimental. It also presents an unflinching account of what life was like for a dancer living in Paris at the time. It’s charming and doesn’t show it’s age one bit, much like Renée. I’ve read some of Colette’s more famous work, but this one is my favorite. It’s a story about what it’s like to be a 30-something woman, long before Bridget Jones, but seeming as current today as when it was first published over 100 years ago.

Review Fridays: Swing Time

The details:

Title: Swing Time
Author: Zadie Smith
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 464
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

It’s hard to be impartial about an author you love. I preordered Swing Time once it was available and have been putting off reviewing it largely because I felt I needed time to digest it. In my opinion, Zadie Smith is one of the best modern authors. I loved White Teeth and On Beauty and NW. Swing Time is different, in tone and style. It doesn’t have the sly humor of White Teeth or the literary homage of On Beauty. Instead, it’s a meditation on music and dance and how to deal with one’s past, one’s own and the past of one’s ancestors.

The first thing that struck me about Swing Time was the difference in point-of-view. Smith’s other novels have a detached third-person perspective, but Swing Time is told in the first-person by an unnamed narrator. The narrator is a bit bland, particularly when compared to all of the other women populating this novel. She forms a sense of self through those around her, always looking up to them, not thinking she can equal them, and her realization of that is heart-breaking.

“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

This is a novel about relationships between women. There’s a very minor romantic subplot, but that never seemed to matter, never seemed like the point. Instead, Swing Time is divided between the two main relationships in the narrator’s life: her childhood friendship with Tracey and her all-consuming job as assistant to an international pop star named Aimee. Also figuring into her life is her unnamed mother, a strong, self-educated woman, an aspiring politician, whom the narrator does not want to be like.

It begins with the story of Tracey and the narrator. They live on an estate in London and both take dance classes. Tracey is a natural talent. The narrator has flat feet, but persists in dancing, taking an interest in the history of dance and focusing on her ability to sing. They usually do what Tracey wants them to do. They play with Barbie, getting “that tiny white woman’s life in order.” They bond over their similar background and skin color: the narrator has a Black mother and White father, Tracey a White mother and Black father. As Tracey and the narrator grow older, they grow apart. Tracey gets the narrator a job backstage at a theatre, but the narrator leaves once she receives an opportunity to work for an MTV-like company. It is there that the narrator meets Aimee.

The narrator idolized Aimee as a child, so when she hears that she will be escorting Aimee around the studio, she puts on an act. Aimee’s favorite color is green, so she buys a green outfit and adds a nose-ring to give her look an edge. But Aimee sees straight through her. Aimee pulls out the fake nose-ring and says, “Don’t believe you.” That’s the narrator’s life summed up in one neat phrase; she tries to be something she’s not, and no one around her buys it anyway. The narrator thinks the whole thing went badly, but a few months later, Aimee’s people call her and offer her a job.

Aimee is repeatedly described as a tiny, white woman, and so it felt like a throw-back to the narrator’s youth that, as an adult, her literal job is getting Aimee’s life in order. She spends all of her time working and being on the look-out for people Aimee calls customers, those who only want to get close to the narrator in order to meet Aimee. From that point, the narrator’s life seems to revolve around Aimee. When Aimee plans for a school in Africa, the narrator spends months at a time there. The Africa subplot offers more things to think about: what right Aimee has to appropriate the culture of others, the problems with dealing with a despotic government to do good, and how involved Aimee would actually be with the school. Good for immediate publicity, the school not seem to interest Aimee after a few months.

There’s so much going on with this novel that it is hard to summarize succinctly. Even a few months removed from reading it, I feel overwhelmed by all of the themes and issues the book raises. Most of the reviews I read cry against the narrator, say how much they disliked her, but I felt for her. Throughout the novel, she is on a journey to self-discovery, and by the end, it seems like she might have reached a point where she will have the time and maturity to finally find a sense of self. The narrator told us a story where she is a shadow. And, just as the book is ending, there is hope for something more for her.

This is the type of book that, while grappling with serious issues, still manages to be excellent entertainment. I feel like this is the sort of book that would hold up well to re-readings, finding something new to think about each time. Overall, I highly recommend it.

Review Fridays: The Lathe of Heaven

The details:

Title: The Lathe of Heaven
Author: Ursula K. Le Guin
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 192
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

What right do we have to change the world, even for the better? And what is better, anyway? That’s the question George Orr asks himself in The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. When he dreams very vividly, or “effectively” as he calls it, he wakes to find that his dreams came true. The world has moved into an alternate reality. No one but George can remember what the world was like before his dream.

Any other person might love that power, but George finds the burden too great to bear. He lives in Portland, Oregon, but his world isn’t the same as ours. It is somewhat recognizable, but contains some very bleak changes. His Portland features food rationing, overpopulation, and global disasters. In an attempt to stop dreaming effectively, he overdoses on drugs. A doctor who treats him assigns him to voluntary therapy. The alternative, if he refuses, is involuntary incarceration. And so there isn’t really a choice at all; George decides to go to therapy, hoping that the psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, can cure him.

Haber specializes in dreams and uses a machine he has spent years developing, combined with hypnosis, to treat George. He puts George into a deep sleep state and suggests what he should dream about. After a couple of test dreams, where the mural in Haber’s office changes from a mountain to a horse and back again, Haber can’t resist the power George gives him. He uses George’s dreams to give himself a better office with a nice window view, to secure a prestigious job, and to “solve” the world’s problems. At first, George isn’t sure if Haber knows that he is telling the truth about his dreams, but, as time progresses, it becomes clear that Haber is manipulating George to change the world.

Wanting to know what his rights are, George visits a lawyer, Heather Lelache, who dubs the tentative, slight man “Mr. Either Orr.” Heather thinks that George is insane, but agrees to visit one of his therapy sessions, and, by experiencing it in person, she can remember the division between what was and what is now. The world keeps changing with Haber’s subsequent “improvements,” however, from one dream to another, and in some realities, George doesn’t even know Heather. She isn’t a lawyer; she doesn’t exist; she isn’t the same fierce woman he has come to admire.

I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters, which is usually a necessity for me to like a book, but the philosophical issues kept me interested. What right do we have to change the world? What is progress? Haber’s ideal world doesn’t sit right with George. When Haber orders George to solve issues of racial prejudice, everyone ends up with gray skin. The problem of overpopulation is solved through a devastating plague. Sick people are euthanized. The constant, world-wide war comes to an end with the introduction of a new enemy: aliens, turtle-like creatures who speak from their elbows.

The message is that there are no easy solutions to the world’s problems. Dr. Haber reaches a point where he has the power, with his important government job, to change the world himself. But he won’t do that. He becomes so obsessed with the idea of a quick and easy fix that he completely overlooks what he can do by himself, through his own agency. Haber is an adherent to utilitarianism, the greatest good for the greatest number, might sincerely believe that he is acting from altruistic motives, but he is flawed. Le Guin reminds readers that so-called easy solutions can have disastrous consequences, even if meant well.

Review Fridays: The Bottle Factory Outing

The details:

Title: The Bottle Factory Outing
Author: Beryl Bainbridge
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 200
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.

Review Fridays: A Wreath of Roses

The details:

Title: A Wreath of Roses
Author: Elizabeth Taylor
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 252
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

It all starts off innocently enough. Camilla is going to meet her friend, Liz, for their usual summer holiday. Every year, they stay for a few weeks with Frances, Liz’s childhood governess. Camilla and a handsome stranger sit in the same car on the train and seem to be headed to the same place. They don’t talk, but Camilla notices him and his movie-star good looks. She is intrigued. He thinks she is probably a school teacher. Half-right, she’s a school secretary. So far, I thought, this has the makings of a cute romantic comedy.

But the author is not of that genre. Elizabeth Taylor (not the famous actress) wrote novels with keen observations on loneliness, isolation, and the role of women in a rapidly changing post-war Britain. Published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses was her 4th novel. Taylor had an immense skill for characterization, the way that she deftly managed to draw out her characters in just a few words. A Wreath of Roses lives up to that reputation, although it is much darker in tone. Camilla and the handsome man have not experienced a meet-cute on the train. Their opinions of each other will not rapidly flutter from indifference to love.

And so it is that, while changing trains at a station, they witness someone commit suicide. This unites Camilla and the man, whom we learn is named Richard Elton, in conversation and leads to an odd sort of relationship during their holiday. Camilla seeks Richard out, hanging around the bar at his hotel and hoping that she will see him, but she doesn’t even particularly like him. She just wants him to write her letters to brighten her next term at the school where she is a secretary. She wants excitement in her dull life, and she gets it and then some. The perspective shifts at times and we see what Richard is thinking. He writes troubling diary entries. He lies about this past. The novel is going to a dark place, but the reader doesn’t learn the full extent of the darkness until the last fifteen pages.

A Wreath of Roses isn’t just about the relationship between Richard and Camilla. Instead, Taylor offers a stark examination of the way relationships between women can alter as they age. Liz is married and has recently had a baby, and her friendship with Camilla suffers as a result. While Liz’s life is just beginning, Frances is growing old and declining. She is a painter, but increasingly she cannot move her arm. Over the course of Liz’s and Camilla’s visit, Frances is coming to terms with the fact that she will not complete any more paintings. She realizes that she may have to rely on Liz’s help, just as Liz relied on her when she was a child.

Added to the fray is an admirer of Frances’s work, Morland Beddoes. A film director, he saw one of Frances’s paintings of Liz and immediately became a fan of her work. He and Frances exchanged letters for years and are meeting for the first time. Their conversation progresses shyly in front of Liz and Camilla (“the girls”), but in private they talk about painting and life in a frank way. Morland may or may not have feelings for Camilla, but all Camilla cares about is Richard and the excitement he exudes.

This is a very dark and subtle examination of characters, but maybe not the best Elizabeth Taylor work to begin with. I first read A Game of Hide and Seek and loved it; then, I immediately started reading the much-praised Angel. Tastes will vary (I personally couldn’t stand Angel), but even the most average Elizabeth Taylor novel is better than most. I will definitely be buying more of her books and adding them to my endless to-read lists.