I had until now successfully avoided reading any Beryl Bainbridge, or even being very aware of her; if I had noticed her books at all it was the later historical novels, and that's not a genre I'm very attracted too. Even Gaskella's 'Reading Beryl' week last year didn't have me paying as much attention as it should have (but it now makes a wonderful resource which is one of the brilliant things about blogs) but a couple of weeks ago I got an unexpected envelope from Virago with a couple of Bainbridge's in it (that's one of the brilliant things about blogging) and they looked quite tempting.
Partly that's the power of the Virago apple on a spine - it will always guarantee my interest, but these are also Bainbridge's early novels where she writes out her early life in a loose combination of autobiography and fiction. After I read 'A Quiet Life' I went back to read the introduction where it came as no real surprise to learn that Bainbridge became a sort of protégé of Anna Haycraft (Alice Thomas Ellis); there is a darkness to this book which dovetails neatly with Alice Thomas Ellis's dark humour. It's another reason for me to warm to Bainbridge.
'A Quiet Life' starts with a re-union between brother and sister, Alan is waiting for Madge in a cafe, they haven't seen each other for 15 years and he seems a fussy stuffy sort. Madge in contrast sounds vaguely bohemian with a dry sense of humour. She starts to describe Alan's childhood - he was lonely, musical, the favoured child who wasn't called upon to work around the house and who was shielded from the rows... Alan doesn't recognise himself, though neither does he really deny Madge's version of events, and then on his way home he falls back into his own memories.
Alan's version is rather different - Madge is a careless, manipulative, slut, their mother a domestic tyrant obsessed with appearances and their father a constant embarrassment - an entrepreneur who has fallen on hard times. There is clearly passion in their marriage but it's gone sour, love has been replaced by bitter fighting and antipathy. For Alan life is about avoiding confrontation and trying to maintain some sort of peace within the family, he too wants to maintain appearances. Madge has no interest in maintaining anything, she deals with their horrible home life by being brutally honest about it and by ignoring any parental authority. At barely 15 she's roaming the countryside with a German prisoner of war seemingly unconcerned about any consequences her actions might have.
It's a bleak little book - which is something I very often find cheering (I can't pretend my life is anything like this grim, which is nice) and so it it here. The home life described is appalling, but it seems that somehow both Alan and Madge have found their happy enough endings despite the damage - both, I imagine, quite different. And then Bainbridge looks for empathy, rather than sympathy or pity, for her characters which I found myself responding to far more than I expected. I'm enthusiastic to read the rest of the Virago re-prints now, and who knows, after that I might even put aside my prejudices and tackle some of the later books.