Reviewing slightly out of order – so that I could sneak this into the beginning of Beryl Bainbridge reading week hosted by Annabel.
A Quiet Life is only the third Beryl Bainbridge novel that I have read, and already I am becoming familiar with her dark humour. The other thing that Beryl Bainbridge does particularly well is to recreate a certain kind of English domesticity – the small frustrations and daily occupations of a family. Bainbridges’s economy of style is particularly impressive, she manages to convey in just a couple of pages, a whole world, within a small insignificant seeming scene – reveals so much. It’s this type of observational writing that I appreciate.
We first meet Alan as a middle aged man, waiting in a café to meet his sister Madge. They haven’t met for fifteen years. Madge had escaped from the conventional, claustrophobic world in which they were brought up in. Their mother has recently died, and Alan has been instructed by his wife – whom we never meet, not needing to – we know her type – to get Madge to take some of their mother’s stuff off their hands. In their first conversation for many years it becomes quickly obvious that they each remember the past rather differently.
From here we return to the domestic world of their adolescence – when Alan is seventeen his sister two years younger. The Second World war has ended, but there is not much sign of peace in their suburban home. Their father is war damaged, embittered by an unhappy marriage, seemingly unable to earn a living – he leaves the house each day for some unspecified purpose – which doesn’t earn him any respect at home.
“When he came home in the dark from his music lesson, the hall light shone through the circular window of the front door, lighting the lower branches of the sycamore tree. His father’s car blocked the path. If he went over the grass, his mother would be bound to see the tyre marks on her flower beds. With difficulty he steered the bicycle along the side of the fence, scraping the handlebars across the wood. His father, changed now into his battledress, struggled in the shadows of the brick porch to rewind the hose. He’d been issued with the uniform during the war when he was supposed to be an air-raid warden, going from house to house to make sure everyone had drawn their black-out curtains. Mostly when the siren went. He’d hidden under the dining room table. Madge used to say A.R.P meant air-raid Pa, not air-raid precautions.
‘Mind the blasted fence,’ Father shouted. He’d been washing the car in the dark.”
There are vague hints at financial problems, and gradually we realise that when they were first married they had enjoyed a much better standard of living, living in a larger house before the war. Alan and Madge’s mother is particularly concerned with how things look, their small house crammed with the furniture of better days, the front room kept perfect for guests – who never seem to come. With a wardrobe full of lovely clothes, their mother pursues her own escape, leaving the house in the evening – to her husband’s great suspicion, never saying where she goes, though Madge knows. Nearby lives Auntie Nora – Alan’s father’s sister – who he runs off to see pretty often.
Alan prefers a quiet life, likes to avoid a row, but there are uneasy tensions in his house. Alan sings in the church choir, has a music lesson and regularly attends the youth club. Quietly lusting after Janet – Alan manages to spend quite a lot of time out of the house. When at home, poor Alan is often on the receiving end of his family’s frustrated irritation.
“Madge was barely fifteen and she did as she pleased. Nothing stopped her, neither Mother’s suffering nor Father’s bullying. She went carefree as a bird, in her school raincoat and her old panama – as if it was high noon in an Indian summer – towards the railway crossing.”
At home while Alan is the reliable one, his sister Madge is less conventional, frequently choosing to go barefoot, she creeps off to meet a German POW – who will soon be repatriated to Germany. Janet becomes Alan’s official girlfriend, helps him search for his wayward sister in the woods and among the sand dunes. One day Alan spots his sister lying in the dunes with her German POW – there she is two years younger, more assured, becoming more experienced, while he can barely find his way inside Janet’s blouse.
There is a feeling that the family are headed toward some kind of crisis – there is little domestic harmony within this dysfunctional family. Plenty of things go unsaid, there’s searing resentment toward Alan’s father in particular, and Alan feels his mother greatly prefers his sister to himself.
There is a wonderfully taut, domestic atmosphere in this novel – which is just what I might have expected from Beryl Bainbridge. However, I had expected more of the unexpected – a bigger kind of twist perhaps. This novel lacked a little of the compelling nature that Harriet Said… had or The Bottle Factory Outing – the only other two Bainbridge I have read – but it is still a very good read. Not sure yet – but I might just squeeze another Beryl Bainbridge book in this week, though I won’t get it reviewed this week too I don’t think.