Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week: An Early Work II

Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge

Scan_20160610This is Beryl’s second published novel originally published in 1968, which she revised to be republished by Duckworth in 1979, preceding the rewritten version of her earlier novel, A Weekend With Claude.

Another Part of the Wood is the story of a holiday from hell. Two families meet up for a cheap holiday in Wales. They’ll be staying in huts in a forest encampment with no electricity. Joseph knows George McFarley, son of the owners who had invited him there. Balfour, the McFarley’s handyman is ready to meet them, having expected to have a quiet time getting on with things.

What was worse, Joseph had apparently taken it upon himself to ask two other people to stay – people whom George had never met. George said that very possibly Joseph would also bring a woman. He usually did. Balfour could tell that George was none too pleased about the arrangements, though he didn’t say much. George never did.

First to arrive is Joseph with his entourage – three of them including his young son Roland, teenager Kidney whom Joseph is sort of fostering, and Dotty his girlfriend. They hadn’t expected him to bring Roland, who normally lives with his mother.

Joseph was moving luggage from the back of the car – some cases, a wicker basket, a long read and black cardboard box. ‘Had to bring this. Dotty can’t live without her Monopoly.’ he said.

This brings back memories of long afternoons playing Monopoly and it always ending in bickering. That board game, if played to its conclusion rather than time-limiting it, makes the eventual winner appear just too greedy – capitalism at its worst! I knew that if that’s the only entertainment they had, they were doomed to have a bad time.

The next morning all is well, although Kidney appears to have got into bed with Roland rather than take the top bunk in the shed they are sharing. Joseph is concerned, but nothing appears to have happened. Kidney pleads with Joseph to have his pill:

‘Don’t worry. You’ll get your pill.’ Joseph went to the wicker basket beneath the settee and pulled it clear. He found the glass bottle. He took out an oblong capsule and replaced the bottle in the wicker basket. ‘Here you are,’ he said, coming back to the table with the pill.

Kidney tells Joseph of an episode in hospital where someone threatened to abuse him, but Joseph doesn’t know how to respond. He seems an unlikely foster dad for troubled, overweight Kidney – his desire seems to be to educate Kidney out of his doldrums rather than nurture.

Later, after they’ve put out a fire caused by a fag-end, the other visitors arrive. Lionel and his wife May. Joseph had told the others:

‘She’s a blonde,’ said Joseph, ‘and he’s in some kind of business. He used to be in the army. Had his buttock shot off in Italy.’

Two women and a child now – when George and Balfour had expected a men + Kidney only group to pursue mannish activities.

May and Lionel will have to share a hut with Balfour, with a temporary partition. However, Lionel has other ideas – how about they push the two sets of bunk beds together. May and Lionel can be on the bottom, Balfour on top. Poor Balfour. Lionel, it turns out, is a complete and utter control freak:

Her made her wear dresses with high necks and complained that she deliberately wore her skirts too short, and he wouldn’t let her see old friends. He followed her round like a hospital nurse, plumping up cushions behind her head and washing out her nylons and cleaning her shoes.

You just know it’s going to turn out badly. Mismatched couples stuck in a forest with nothing to do, neglected kids, not enough lanterns, no planned activities, only Monopoly and wine for amusement. May’s thoughts capture the ennui perfectly:

There was an atmosphere in the hut that made her feel irritable. It was as if they had all been plucked up out of nowhere and set down with the express purposed of being amusing or interesting or something, and they had all been found wanting. It was so embarrassing, not knowing what way to be…

The air is full of tension: both dramatic and sexual. There is a real sense of foreboding and Bainbridge’s dark sense of humour makes it grimly compulsive. The character we sympathise most with is Balfour, the shy and quiet, observant man who’d rather stay in the background. It’s amazing that they all can all smile for the camera in the group photo depicted on the cover of this edition. For a short novel of just 160 pages about a holiday which should be a mixture of outdoorsy fun, communal meals and early nights, nothing will go to plan. It’s an uncomfortable tale, well-told. (7.5/10)

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Source: Own copy.

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