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VINE VOICEon 13 November 2003
Beryl Bainbridge is such a perfectionist that, according to a recent article in Mslexia, she is still trying to formulate the title of her present work in progress. Such consummate professionalism is clearly present in this mind-blowingly good novel.
Set in 1950, An Awfully Big Adventure chronicles the life of troubled Stella Bradshaw, an aspiring young actress making her first hesitant steps onto the professional stage. She rapidly becomes infatuated with Meridith, the company director, and, when he spurns her advances, she turns to O’Hara (stand-in for Hook in their production of Peter Pan), in an effort to make him jealous. This attempt badly misfires, however, as the quite brilliant ending proves (every bit as shocking in its way as that of Sixth Sense) and we are left to reflect on the perils of unrequited love, dark, powerful family secrets, and the crippling effect of war.
That Bainbridge achieves such multilayered depth in such a slim novel is nothing short of remarkable. An Awfully Big Adventure is beautifully crafted, tightly plotted – with absolutely no loose ends. She brings it to its awful denouement with devastating logic. And it is very subtly done: Bainbridge emphatically shows and studiously avoids telling. We are meant to infer her message from the drama of the narrative. She, as with other great novelists, allows the reader time and space to think – hence the exquisitely spare prose. I shall have to stop now, for fear of writing page after page of compliments. Suffice it to say, therefore, that An Awfully Big Adventure is wonderful in every way – character development, style and plot execution are all flawless. Truly, this is the perfect novel.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 November 2013
Working in rep in Liverpool in the early 1950s, Stella is a young girl, still in her teens, living with her Aunt Lily and Uncle Vernon, of whom she is sometimes callously ashamed. She has a tiny part in the play Bill of Divorcement and then goes on to make a success of a part in Anthony and Cleopatra as a young royal boy. The other characters are deftly described: "... there was nothing wrong with Dawn Allenby apart from her love of beauty, an affliction she was ill-equipped to fight." And: "Desmond Fairchild, a sadist in a trilby hat worn with the brim turned up all the way round like a vaudeville comic."

This novel sparks and flashes with humour at every turn, sometimes darkly, sometimes with the beautifully abrupt wit all her novels are known for: "Uncle Vernon had waited up for her. He'd wanted to escort her home but she had threatened to commit arson if he came within a quarter of a mile of the theatre. He'd kept her supper warm in a pot in the oven."

I can't recommend this book highly enough - just splendid. Though it's not quite a laugh a minute, and there are some very sad secrets, one in particular that is never properly brought out, but which caused me some puzzlement until I worked it out. Beryl Bainbridge died in 2010, but there will probably never be a better writer to lose out on the Booker Prize. I would particularly recommend a somewhat more serious book of hers, The Birthday Boys, which is about Scott's attempt to reach the North Pole, but anything she wrote is well worth reading - she never wrote a duff book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 January 2013
The Good Companions is a lovely, warm, fuzzy, well written book (a favourite of mine) about the trials, tribulations, triumphs and tragedies of a small travelling music hall company in the 1920s

Jump forwards 30 years to the setting of Bainbridge's book about the trials, tribulations, triumphs (very few) and tragedies (quite a lot) of a Liverpool repertory company. Originally published in 1989, Bainbridge draws upon some of her own experiences as an actor around that time.

Gone is Priestley's enjoyable, rather sentimental approach. Instead, we have a blackly, bleakly funny and unholy mixture of sex, love, death and religion, all wrapped up in an atmosphere of lower middle-class prurience and and things which are not quite nice and musn't be mentioned (Orton's territory)

This is the story of Stella, an awkward, difficult, naive and impressionable mid-teens. She is also adept at wearing a don't tangle with me mask, making her appear much more hard-boiled and insensitive than she really is. Strings are pulled to get her a job as an ASM in the rep company, as her imaginative, rather histrionic abilities at play-acting her way through her life, suggest to those around her that she may have a theatrical gift.

Bainbridge structures her book beautifully, setting something up at the start, which is only finally revealed at the end, when she collapses, one by one, her house of cards, with a selection of hinted at revelations which are simultaneously as bleak, horribly funny, and shocking as Orton. There is as much going on here as there are in some of the major themes of Greek tragedy, except Bainbridge does the great trick of wrapping the tragedy with absurd, comedic touches.

I'm working through re-reading Bainbridge, following my reading of the wonderful Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend which connects her life, her writing and her art, and this was a wonderful re-read.
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on 22 February 2005
She writes beautifully and sparingly. You are straight into the story no messing about. The book is full of humour, skillfully drawn characters that you grasp within a few sentences but the narrative is always going somewhere. The clues are always there. The trick is not to get carried away and read it too fast. It ought to be savoured.
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on 9 May 2010
Set in the threadbare background of a Liverpool theatre shortly after the war, this is an unusual coming of age tale where Stella tries to find her own way in the world. Mortified by her aunt and uncle who look after her due to her mother disappearing many years ago, Stella is a catalyst for bringing down the entire theatre as she struggles to come to terms with her background. Memorably filmed by Mike Figgis and shortlisted for he Booker, this is a novel that benefits from reading again and again.
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on 11 August 2014
Seems rather dated now and one cannot imagine a young person being so ingenious these days .I am sure that if you were familiar with Liverpool there would be an extra interest. The humour is gentle but funny .
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on 26 February 2016
Bainbridge at her best. Funny, sad, a young woman's introduction to life, its ordeals, pretentions, betrayals and harsh realities.
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on 7 January 2015
An intriguing novel of dark intrigue. Good characterisation. Captures the atmosphere of 1950's Liverpool.
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on 26 June 2015
Funny and beautifully drawn characters. Takes you back to the post- war period!
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on 23 January 2015
Loved it was transported back into the 60s and the sexual climate then
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