Beryl Bainbridge: The Dressmaker (1973)

Wartime Liverpool is a place of ration books and jobs in munitions factories. Rita, living with her two aunts Nellie and Margo, is emotionally naive and withdrawn. When she meets Ira, a GI, at a neighbour’s party she falls in love almost as much with the idea of life as a GI bride as with the man himself. But Nellie and Margo are not so blind …

Guy’s recent review of the Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (you can find it here) put me in the mood to read Beryl Bainbridge who had been on my radar and reading pile for a while. Initially I didn’t even want to buy The Dressmaker as the cover looked like some soppy romance. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is a fantastic book. It’s so fantastic that I don’t know how to describe her writing. One would have to quote her extensively to convey a good feeling for her art.

While I was reading the book I was alternatingly thinking three things: “Why did I not discover her earlier?”, I” want to write like her”, “How did she do that?”

The Dressmaker is set in wartime Liverpool, a place and time that interests me a lot. Young Rita lives with her two aunts, Marge and Nellie. Her mother died and her father, whom she calls Uncle Jack, a butcher,  was unable to cope and raise a girl on his own. That’s the reason why she finished living with her two spinsterly sisters. Nellie, who is a dressmaker, is a joyless woman. She only lives for the day when she can finally follow her own mother to the grave. She is very domineering and her cheerless ways crush her sister as much as her niece. She has turned polishing and looking after her mother’s furniture into a cult. The lifeless objects mean more to her than her fellow human beings. Marge is quite different. She was married but her husband died, she also seems to have affairs that Jack and Nellie try to crush as soon as they start. Still she is lively and tries to enjoy life as much as the other two allow it. Rita is  a very naive young girl, very cheerless as well and full of sentimental, romantic and unrealistic ideas. When she meets Ira, a young GI, she has all sorts of pictures and dreams in her mind but none matches reality.

Interestingly the novel starts at the end but we do not know that really until we finish the book.

Afterwards she went through into the little front room, the tape measure still dangling about her neck, and allowed herself a glass of port. And in the dark she wiped at the surface of the polished sideboard with the edge of her flowered pinny in case the bottle had left a ring.

Nothing is like it seems in this novel. That may not be an unusual premiss but what is unusual is the way Bainbridge provides information. She can describe a scene leaving out an important detail that she will give much later. This makes you feel as if you were discovering all sorts of things while reading. She would never give you the whole picture of any situation or a person right away. Reading her is like being sprayed with cool water every few minutes. It will keep you attentive, awake and alert the whole time.

Just like situations and characters are only understood completely after we have read most of the novel, the story and its ending are only fully grasped at the end.

Besides this very wonderful and unusual story telling, she touches on so many themes. It’s so accurate how she portrays the way those young GI’s were received in England, enthusiastic by the women and with a lot of jealousy by the men as they were “overpaid, oversexed and over here”, as they said. Economically they were so much better off than the British, it must have been quite painful for many men. There is a lot of prejudice but at the same time they are also idealized. The way young Rita felt was quite typical too.

She was mad for the way he said “dawg”, like he was a movie star, larger than life.

Of course he isn’t anyone famous or important and  doesn’t even come from a rich family as Rita assumes or hopes. Without being aware of it, Rita would probably have fallen for any man who would have given her the idea of escaping her oppressing situation. She is not only living in a cheerless but in a highly dysfunctional environment and under the surface a lot of things are smoldering. Repressed sexuality and joy are but a few results of the upbringing Nellie, Marge and Jack had to endure as children and are now passing on to their daughter and niece.

Bainbridge offers accomplished writing paired with an engrossing story that culminates in a surprising ending. If you haven’t read her, I can only urge you to rush and get one of her novels. If you have read her, I’m sure, you know what I’m talking about. I very rarely feel the urge to read all of someone’s novels. It does happen though. It just did.

After Guy’s suggestion I already ordered another one, An Awfully Big Adventure. Do you have any other recommendations?

Louise Welsh: Tamburlaine Must Die (2004)

It’s 1593 and London is a city on edge. Under threat from plague and war, it’s a desperate place where strangers are unwelcome and severed heads grin from spikes on Tower Bridge. Playwright, poet, spy, Christopher Marlowe has three days to live. Three days in which he confronts dangerous government factions, double agents, necromancy, betrayal and revenge in his search for the murderous Tamburlaine, a killer who has escaped from between the pages of Marlowe’s most violent play. The Final Testament of Christopher Marlowe is a swashbuckling adventure story of a man who dares to defy God and state and who discovers that there are worse fates than damnation.

I really enjoyed Tamburlaine Must Die. I liked Louise Welsh’s latest novel Naming the Bones (here’s the review) and wanted to read another one and I wasn’t disappointed. However I know the book got very mixed reviews and this mainly because of the language. Clearly Welsh tried to write 16th century English and might not have been 100% successful. I didn’t care or – because I’m not a native speaker – didn’t notice. I thought the language was beautiful.

In her novella Louise Welsh lets Christopher Marlowe, the famous playwright, tell his final ten days. Someone has written a libel in his name, imitating his writing, signing with the name of the main-protagonist of one of his plays, Tamburlaine. Welsh imgines how and why he must have been killed, how he spent his last days, sleeping with men and women, drinking too much, picking fights, putting himself in danger through his blasphemies.

I think Christopher Marlowe is one of the most fascinating figures of literature. An immensely gifted writer, a rake, a debauchee, a spy, a rough neck, a ruffian, an innovator and subversive man  and many other things. The book is atmospheric and evocative, you see the streets of London, the intrigue, the danger of a city afflicted by the plague, the violence of the times. Any sign of not following the Church, not being loyal to the Queen, being a homosexual were highly dangerous.

We know Marlowe escaped the dungeon but only to face death through an unknown enemy. His murder has never been solved and to this day there are many speculations.

I think I start to realize what type of historical novels I like. I like it when a writer manages to give a voice to historical figures, makes them come alive, imagines how they thought and felt.

One thing that has been criticized is that she didn’t depict a fear-ridden Marlowe although he knew he was going to be killed. I think from what I know of the man, he wasn’t too anxious, he threw himself into life until his last moment. He would have gladly gone on living, writing more plays but if this wasn’t to be, then it wasn’t. As simple as that.

The best about the book is that it sparked my imagination. I’m in the mood to read Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, The Great and Doctor Faustus which influenced Goethe and Thomas Mann and I would also be interested in reading about him.

Louise Welsh based her book to a large part on Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe but David Rigg’s The World of Christopher Marlowe sounds equally interesting.

Has anyone read any of these or other books about Tudor England?

Literature and War Readalong January 28 2011: Strange Meeting by Susan Hill

The end of the month will arrive sooner than we think and I just wanted to remind you that I am going to post on the first book in the Literature and War Readalong, Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting on January 28. I hope some of you have read it and will participate in the discussion and maybe post as well. It’s a short novel of barely 200 pages. The novel tells the story of two very different men who meet during WWI. The first four novels of this read along are all dedicated to WWI. The only one that is slightly longer (300 pages), is the April choice, Carol Ann Lee’s The Winter of the World.

To get you in the mood for Strange Meeting, here’ s a quote taken from Susan Hill’s website

My great uncle Sidney was killed on his 18th birthday at the Battle of the Somme and his photograph in uniform was on the dresser in my grandmother’s house so as a young child I always asked about him. The Great War began to haunt me from then and my interest became an obsession after I heard Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in Coventry Cathedral. I knew I would have to write a novel about it but first I read everything I could – memoirs, biographies, history, letters. I wrote the novel in 6 weeks, at home in Warwickshire, and in my rented house in Aldeburgh, where I tramped across the marshes in the rain and mud and saw the ghosts of dead soldiers rising up in front of me.

But having finished it, my interest in the First World War was exorcised and it has never returned.

Another quote that seems important in the context is the poem Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen which Susan Hill certainly had in mind.

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, –
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…’

I will try from now on and post a quick note on all the books of the readalong during the first weeks of each month.

Rosamund Lupton: Sister (2010) A Great New British Thriller Writer

Nothing can break the bond between sisters …When Beatrice gets a frantic call in the middle of Sunday lunch to say that her younger sister, Tess, is missing, she boards the first flight home to London. But as she learns about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s disappearance, she is stunned to discover how little she actually knows of her sister’s life – and unprepared for the terrifying truths she must now face. The police, Beatrice’s fiance and even their mother accept they have lost Tess but Beatrice refuses to give up on her. So she embarks on a dangerous journey to discover the truth, no matter the cost.

That was a fast read. Even though this was a busy week and the novel had some 370 pages I read it in a few days. That certainly says something. I liked it a lot. The writing reminded me of Maggie O’Farrell. Should she ever choose to write a thriller, that’s what it could look like.

Sister is the story of  Tess and Beatrice, two sisters who are extremely close, even though the older one, Beatrice, lives in New York, while the younger, Tess, is still in London where she goes to an art school. When Beatrice gets the phone call from her mother saying her sister is missing she is highly alarmed and flies back to London immediately. When the sister is found dead and declared to be a suicide Bee – as her sister used to call her – is the only one who does not believe it was suicide. She is certain it was murder. And she won’t change her mind. No matter what the police, her mother or Tess’ psychiatrist say.

The story is told in part as if Beatrice was writing  a letter to her dead sister, telling her the whole story after the murderer has been found and arrested. In part she writes the letter, in part she tells the whole story to a lawyer. Consecutive flash backs. The story is also interspersed with dialogue between the sisters.  There are many red herrings as so many men who were in Tess’ life seem suspicious. The ending is quite a twist. That’s the only flaw I could find in this book. It seems a little bit artificial but then again it is not an improbable ending.

There are  many colorful characters in this novel. Art students, immigrants, doctors, scientists, policemen. The bond between those sisters is certainly the most important relationship in the book and it is very deep and moving. The story of their childhood is not an easy one which is another reason why they were so close. All through the novel Beatrice finds other people to relate to and some relationships like the one with her mother are completely transformed. Bee herself is also changed considerably. When the novel starts she is afraid of life, at the end she is ready to embrace and enjoy it.

Sister is Rosamund Lupton’s first book. The next should come out in 2011. I am already looking forward to reading it.