A few weeks ago, with my impending 30th birthday looming, I decided that I wanted to try some of the authors, or classics, that I had never tried before but always wanted to. One of the three authors I decided upon, thanks to a recommendation from Annabel of Gaskella who has read-a-long too, was Beryl Bainbridge. She is an author I have always felt I should try, she was nominated for the Man Booker five times, and always shortlisted but never won, and was seen as one of Britain’s national treasures. I didn’t know what to expect when I opened up ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’, her third novel published in 1974, as I read on I discovered that you should expect the unexpected, in a good way.
Abacus Books, paperback, 1974, fiction, 200 pages, from my personal TBR
‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ is a tale of Brenda and Freda, these two women live in a shared bedsit room, separated in bed by a bolster made of books, and I think it is fair to say that being so chalk and cheese if Freda hadn’t happened upon and ‘adopted’ Brenda after she left her husband and the countryside to come to London they wouldn’t have ever made a likely paid of friends. Yet friends and subsequently co-workers they have become and it is the events leading up to, during (something awful happens, though what I won’t say) and after a work outing, from the bottle factory, which Freda has organised that this novel revolves around.
The novel is really one of two halves, and this made it an intriguing first read of any of Beryl’s work for me so might for others, as the first half is a comedy of errors and rather farcical before certain events take place giving the novel a much darker and more disturbing twist making it a very black comedy. As I started to read, after some initial confusion over which woman was which for the first ten or so pages, I was pretty much instantly hooked. I loved how Beryl builds the women’s characters, and their polar opposites, so vividly and so funnily with small observations of their behaviour. I laughed out loud a lot.
‘At night when they prepared for bed Freda removed all her clothes and lay like a great fretful baby, majestically dimpled and curved. Brenda wore her pyjamas and her underwear and a tweed coat – that was the difference between them. Brenda said it was on account of nearly being frozen to death in Ramsbottom, but it wasn’t really that.’
The dynamic of the two women is really the driving force initially for the novel. They are friends and also constantly in competition. I would say they loved to love each other and loved to loathe each other in equal measure. Brenda is the quieter, slighter, more serious brunette who seems to make any man she meets want to ravish her and Freda is the louder, brasher, bossier, plumper one who is set on trying to seduce the son and heir, Vittorio, of the bottle factory business she works in. It is this desire that leads to the outing on which everything changes and the novel sets up a gear as things start to unfold.
There were so many things that I loved about Beryl Bainbridge’s writing that it might be hard to encompass them all, I will endeavour to try though. First of all is how much is in such a small book. At a mere 200 pages, and in fairly big print which could be devoured in a few hours, so much happens that when you have finished you find yourself recapping it all and thinking ‘did that all just happen in this book?’ There are funerals, hilarious seductions in cellars, hilarious seductions in a shared bedroom and a shared bathroom, a mother in law with a grudge to bear and a gun in her handbag, a fight in Windsor Castle, horse riding with the Queen’s funereal regiment, something awful on an outing which leads to a strange trip to a safari park, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The writing is also incredible. Beryl Bainbridge manages to write what is essentially a farcical and rather unbelievable story, though you never know, but builds the atmosphere, tensions and characters in such a way that you fully believe this series of events could happen. Her main characters are incredibly flawed and can be rather vile, in fact so can the minor ones, but they walk off the page and you like them, you want to read about them. The most impressive thing is how in a mere sentence or two Bainbridge can give you a place and/or person in mere lines, no word is wasted but it’s not so sparse you have to fill in the gaps, not many authors can do this and I really admire it when I read it.
‘The hearse stood outside the block of flats, waiting for the old lady. Freda was crying. There were some children and a dog running in and out of the line of bare black trees planted in the pavement. ‘I don’t know why you’re crying,’ said Brenda. ‘You didn’t know her.’
As you may be able to tell I really loved ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’. It was nothing like I expected it to be and was a wonderful discovery. I loved Beryl Bainbridge’s sense of humour both when it was light and dark, I loved her prose, I just thought it was great and am quite thrilled to have discovered an author who I now cannot wait to read more of. My only slight wish is that I had discovered her before she died a few years ago and could have gone to see her speak, though her voice definitely lives on in a novel like this.
I have to say a big thank to Annabel for reminding me that I wanted to read Beryl Bainbridge. As I mentioned we have been reading the book in tandem and her thoughts can be found here. We will be popping and commenting on any comments you leave, plus chatting about it between the two of us on both blogs as the day goes on. If you haven’t read any Bainbridge do, start with this one. Where should I go next? I am thinking her novel ‘Every Man For Himself’ about the Titanic might be rather timely?