The Bottle Factory Outing, by Beryl Bainbridge
Beryl Bainbridge is one of those writers who seem to slip out of fashion, never quite given the recognition they deserve. She was nominated five times for the Booker, never winning (except for a rather bizarre consolation prize for which nobody else was nominated). Since her death she’s remained in print, but I see relatively little discussion of her online.
Today her books are firmly marketed as women’s fiction, a category largely made up by marketers which helps shift units but at the same time pigeonholes a wide range of female authors by implying their books are essentially entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, and there’s no dichotomy between being serious and being entertaining (several of the books I’ll soon be writing up are both). Still, if a book comes with pretty pastel covers, or faux-vintage photos of vaguely 1940s/50s-ish people against a black and white background, it’s sending a message about the contents. Much the same as if a book comes with big bold letters and a picture of a gun, helicopter or other piece of high-tech hardware.
Why do I care about all this? Well, partly because I’m a Guardian reader of course and it’s the sort of thing we care about, but mostly because while it does undoubtedly help sell books it also blocks certain books off from certain readers. So, if anyone reading this has been put off Beryl Bainbridge by the covers (the one below features two women nothing like those in the novel, and is utterly misleading), the blurbs, the impression given by all that of her work, here’s the important bit: she can write.
The Bottle Factory Outing opens with Brenda and Freda, two flatmates who decided too hastily to live together and have long since found out they have little in common. Brenda is a mouse of a woman, constantly cowed and put upon (“As a child she had been taught it was rude to say no, unless she didn’t mean it.”) . Freda is near her opposite, voluptuous and full of rather theatrical life.
They had gone once to a bureau on the High Street and said they were looking for temporary work in an office. They lied about their speed and things, but the woman behind the desk wasn’t encouraging. Secretly Freda thought it was because Brenda looked such a fright – she had toothache that morning and her jaw was swollen. Brenda thought it was because Freda wore her purple cloak and kept flipping ash on the carpet.
They share a North London bedsit and work together in a bottle factory, bottling Italian wine. Rossi, a manager, gropes Freda every day (“He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly.”), she doesn’t like it but she doesn’t like to say no either and she can’t get Brenda to pay enough attention to help her out. Brenda anyway is too preoccupied with the handsome Vittorio, who she is determined to have a grand romance with.
Does it sound prosaic? Initially it is. It’s also though beautifully observed and painfully funny. Here’s an example of Brenda and Freda’s domestic arrangements:
Brenda had fashioned a bolster to put down the middle of the bed and a row of books to ensure that they lay less intimately at night. Freda complained that the books were uncomfortable – but then she had never been married.
Bainbridge crafts each sentence perfectly. She has an extraordinary talent for small and cutting observations. Both Brenda and Freda are brilliantly captured. I believed in them and to an extent sympathised, which given they’re comic characters and arguably stereotypes is no small achievement. Bainbridge also has a knack for language that illuminates the everyday, but from unexpected angles (such as at one point where she describes a “block of flats, moored in concrete like an ocean liner.”, an image I adored).
Freda has organised an outing for the bottle factory employees. A van is booked, picnic lunches packed and the absent factory owner has contributed two barrels of wine for the day. Everyone is looking forward to it, everyone except Brenda who’d rather not go but doesn’t want to put anyone out.
At this point in the novel I was expecting a light observational comedy. I’d already noticed a black vein to the humour, but it was nothing compared to what followed. Obviously I won’t spoil what happens for those who may read it, but it’s fair to say that by about the half-way/two-thirds mark I was wondering what Bainbridge was trying to achieve. The essentially realist opening turned increasingly surreal as the day of the outing unfolded; the plot became less likely, the tone more vicious.
Stick with it though and Bainbridge does have a plan. Looking back the cruelty, uncertainty and bleak irony were always there, right from the beginning. Here’s the novel’s opening:
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.’
It’s a collision of romance and brutal reality, as is the whole novel. Freda is self-indulgently moved by the death of an old woman she didn’t know “‘I like funerals – all those flowers – a full life coming to a close …'”. Brenda notes that the dead woman’s life didn’t look that full, seeing as she only left behind a cat and had no mourners. Brenda’s life is rather miserable, and while perhaps Freda’s is too Freda certainly doesn’t see it that way. Brenda is escaping a past, Freda is looking forward to a future even if it is one that’s largely founded on self-delusion. Of the two, if I had to choose, I’d rather be Freda.
In case there’s any lingering doubt I thought this was superb. It’s funny, disturbing and exceptionally well written. It won’t be my last Bainbridge. Thanks are therefore due to Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations, who turned me on to Bainbridge in the first place. Were I to compare her to any other author it would be JG Farrell, who can also make the reader laugh while showing them terrible things (I reviewed his Troubles here, if you like one its worth trying the other).
For some other reviews of The Bottle Factory, I’d recommend this rather excellent review by Savidge Reads, this from the bibliolathas blog (particularly good for quotes) and this review by Gaskella which seems to have inspired a lot of different people to read the book.