I have appreciated Beryl Bainbridge's excellent theatre reviews in the Oldie Magazine for years and so had high hopes that I would enjoy this book. I have to admit I was disappointed. The writing is elegantly spare and she creates some memorable, though mainly unpleasant characters, however, nothing much happens until near the end of the book other than squabbling and nasty interactions between the characters and I found myself skimming paragraphs to get to the end. There's an informative introduction to the book that gives a clue to the creation of the most unpleasant character in the book, Joseph. The two women, May and Dotty, are respectively a shrew and a door mat, and all, except the child, Roland, are caricatures.
For those of us who recall the 1960s there are some familiar allusions to the likes of PJ Proby (whose claim to fame, if I recall correctly, was that he split his trousers while performing on stage) and events of the day.
I believe that this was one of the first books she wrote and so should be judged as such. I certainly enjoyed some of her later books, such as The Bottle Factory Outing.
A somewhat strange group of people have come to the holiday chalets owned by George – a giant of a man who nonetheless says very little. Joseph has brought his son Roland and a boy called Kidney, older than Roland and very fat. Kidney seems to be a protégé of Joseph’s, perhaps a potential adoptee, who seems to have spent most of his life being rescued from members of his family or living in various institutions. Also along on the spree is Balfour, who seems to be a protégé of George’s, who has been very ill recently, Joseph’s sometime girlfriend, Dottie, and a married couple, Lionel and May. All of these people are distinctly bad at communicating with each other. The chalets are not much more than huts, though there are enough bunk beds to go round, although the disposition of the beds make for some curious pairings, during which Balfour finds himself forced to listen to the stories Lionel makes up to rouse his wife to a point where she may be forced to attack him.
This was Beryl Bainbridge’s second book, before she really made a name for herself with The Bottle Factory Outing. It is funny, though cruel and even violent in parts. Possibly one of the strangest and most fascinating of all her books.
They spend their time sunbathing, arguing, sometimes going for walks, but when two members of the party go off to climb the nearby mountain together (in reality just a large hill) , things get stranger and one fears for the safety of at least two members of the party, and perhaps the sanity of another. The reader’s sanity is under some distress, too, and there is a tragic ending. Brilliant writing – this woman can do no wrong as far as I am concerned.
Another Part Of The Wood by Beryl Bainbridge first appeared in 1968. It was a significant year. The book's vintage shows through via passing reference to recognisable ephemera. Characters rejoice in wearing flared trousers, for instance, and remark when P J Proby sings on the car radio. Quaint, wasn't it?
There's a holiday retreat in the north Wales hills. There are some cabins in the wood. They offer what would sound like very basic accommodation in today's terms. But back in the 1960s, when foreign package holidays were still not the norm and no more likely encountered than a week in a caravan at Flamborough, the holiday-makers in the book no doubt looked forward to the experience. It was then, as now, a trip back to nature.
Beryl Bainbridge's forté is the presentation and juxtaposition of characters. In many ways, the discovery of their relationships is the plot. So it does not help the prospective reader if I give a detailed description of them in a review. But a cursory glance at them reveals how, after more than forty years, their identities and their concerns have remained remarkably modern.
There's a couple of families. There's marriage and not marriage. There are children, both vulnerable and exploitative. There are flashbacks to a wartime experience that still makes everyday life hard to bear long before the term "post-combat stress disorder" had passed a campaigner's lips. There is both pride and fear wrapped together. There are others who can't cope with who they are. Someone is overweight. How modern can you get? Someone else stammers when over-wrought. There is someone who is easily led, and someone who wants to lead. There are people getting away from it all, and other who actively want to seek out experience. There are those who regard the rural area as a threat because of its lack of urban familiarity, and then there are those for whom it is a liberation. While a family argues over a game of Monopoly, someone almost burns down the real estate. There's even more going on under the surface.
A contemporary reader might find the obvious lack of linear plot somewhat confusing. Reading Beryl Bainbridge is a bit like sitting on the sea. Waves come with regularity. They are all different, but eventually a pattern emerges. And it's a pattern where all the usual - and remarkable - human traits can be found. The final act may be over-played, but the experience is lasting, just as long as it lasts. It's a bit like life, actually.
Revered the late Beryl Bainbridge might be, but I did not get on well with this her second novel. The problem for me was the characters, a dispiriting bunch, several of whom seemed to be of indeterminate age. The most powerful characters, Joseph and Lionel, are repellent. George is relatively unsociable. May comes out positively and Dotty eventually makes a decision which redeems her. Balfour is a half-drawn bundle of nerves, while the child Roland and the backward, ludicrously-named Kidney are deftly portrayed. As a group, I never quite felt they were realistic. There was always something missing. The novel improves towards the end as an interesting, tense climax builds, but the first two-thirds of the book left me feeling apathetic.