A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge
Alan sits in a café waiting for his sister Madge, whom he hasn’t seen for fifteen years – there to discuss their late mother’s effects. Both are now in their forties, and they’re still as different as chalk and cheese.
Rewind twenty-five years. It’s the 1950s; petrol is still rationed, the spectre of the war still looms large for there are German POWs stationed nearby.
We meet a family – at war – with itself. Our guide is Alan, aged seventeen, the quiet and responsible one who worries about everything, but especially Madge. Madge, two years younger, manages to get away with everything. She’s Alan’s complete opposite; an extrovert who loves life, and an expert manipulator of her parents.
Alan suffers silently, and lusts quietly after Janet in the church choir. Madge, meanwhile, has been spotted cavorting in the dunes with a German POW, and Alan doesn’t know what to do. One suspects he is jealous of Madge’s emotional development – she’s fast becoming a young woman, whereas although older, he is still to get past first base, so to speak.
The parents: When Mother married Father, he was well off, they had a house with a maid. She had been to a Belgian finishing school. The war saw to all that – no they are all crammed into a small house, not much more than a two-up, two-down, with all the remaining furniture. There’s no space to move, especially as the front room is kept for visitors only. Father, meanwhile, spends a lot of time with his sister, Alan’s Auntie Nora, when he’s not out on business – we never find out what he actually does, but the black market is hinted at. They’re not happy at all, they barely speak these days, both caught up in their own misery; the scene is set for a claustrophobic drama.
Madge’s behaviour is causing problems, and beginning to get noticed:
‘You’re running wild,’ he muttered. ‘It’s not normal.’ He regretted instantly his choice of words. He thought she would launch into some drivel about normality being relative. For once she kept silent. Encouraged, he said: ‘Don’t you see what friction you cause in the house? They’re worried sick over you.’
‘It’s not me, Alan,’ she said. ‘It’d be all the same if I stayed in. It’s money … and that solicitor.’
He didn’t seem to grasp that it was the trouble she caused him personally that was his main concern. He was long past marshalling the reasons for his parents’ behaviour – it would be like emptying a cupful of ants into a butterfly net for safe-keeping. All he wanted was for Madge to stay home at night, so he needn’t return to find his father jumping up and down, demented, at the kerb.
Having read her debut, Harriet Said, this novel is recognisable as a development of that earlier one, but without the wicked plan of the two schoolgirls – Madge’s only aim is to find love. Bearing in mind the horror of Harriet Said, and coming the year after Sweet William, which was an out and out comedy, A Quiet Life seems very pedestrian in its targets – a kitchen sink drama of class war and depression. Beryl’s depiction of the war-torn landscape is also depressing:
In the pockets of darkness lay the bomb-sites, rubble overgrown with tall and multiplying weeds; the wind blew constantly from the river, scattering the dust and the seeds across the demolished city.
Everything seems grey, and for me, although Bainbridge’s writing is as sharp as ever, this novel fell flat. There are no big twists or revelations, although each character has much to hide. They’re all hanging on, and we’re spectators watching, waiting for them to fall. In my bibliography post, before having read the book, I used a quote from the lyric to the Pink Floyd song Time: “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” and that is so apt!
The other thing I missed in this novel was some of Bainbridge’s wicked humour for the touches were few and far between. More would have mitigated the unrelenting gloom, but also may have diluted the tension. One of the funniest moments was actually on the first page where Madge writes to Alan “suggesting that if they were going to put Mother in the same grave as Father it might be a waste of time to carve ‘Rest in Peace’ on the tombstone.”
In summary, not my favourite Bainbridge, and not necessarily a good one to start with, but definitely worth reading. (7/10)
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Source: Own copy.
Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge, new VMC pbk, 176 pages.