Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge (1980)
Douglas Ashburner is going on holiday. He was surprised that his wife of twenty-six years was happy for him to disappear off to the Highlands for a fortnight’s fishing trip. Leaving her in bed, she waves him goodbye with a ‘queenly gesture of farewell’.
Little does she know. His real plans are to fly to the USSR with Nina as a guest of the Soviet Artists’ Union. Nina, married to a brain-surgeon, is a highly-strung artist; they’ve been having an affair for some time. They’ll be going with two other artists, Bernard and Enid, on the trip.
Right from the start, things are troublesome. Nina is under the weather, Bernard has too much hand luggage and Ashburner becomes the dogsbody. So when they finally get on the plane, he can’t even sit with Nina.
It goes from bad to worse. Ashburner’s suitcase gets ‘lost’ and when they get to their hotel their reservations are not in order. Even Olga, their assigned interpreter is frustrated by it, and filling out the necessary forms about his luggage, Ashburner begins to panic that his wife will be contacted about the missing suitcase. They finally get assigned their rooms and Nina goes off without telling Ashburner her room number. They’re to meet in the hotel restaurant soon – Ashburner is first down followed by Enid.
‘I feel ridiculously homesick,’ he confessed. ‘Isn’t that foolish?’
‘Nina’s been giving you a hard time, has she?’ asked Enid.
‘I don’t even know I’m here,’ said Ashburner. ‘I mean, I know we’ve flown here and I’m obviously not at home, but I don’t feel I’m here.’
‘You are,’ Enid Said. ‘I can see you. Just about.’ (p46)
There was no denying that Nina was a wonderful person. Possibly she was even more wonderful than his wife; but believe it or not, at this particular moment, sitting in this Black Hole of Calcutta, he began to doubt that he felt very much for her – not felt. (p47)
Circumstances seem to keep conspiring to keep Ashburner and Nina apart. The Soviet Artists’ Union has set up a full itinerary for them, and Olga will be with them every step of the way. Nina’s illness gets worse, she’s taken to a sanitarium and effectively disappears. Ashburner is forced to join Bernard and Enid on the excursions, relocating to Leningrad, as it was then called, after a few days and then on to Tblisi. Nina is to rejoin them there when better.
I loved Bainbridge’s descriptions of Communist Russia and its comparison to Ashburner’s ‘winter garden’ at home – a spot in his garden where the sun never shines. The complete jobsworth attitudes of minor officials, the ever-present, ever-organising Olga and the hilarious trip to Stalin’s birthplace contrast with the alcoholic dinner with Nina’s friend Boris at his dacha. Olga and Boris are both great characters who provide much of the comedy once in the USSR.
Ashburner is a real fish out of water, but unlike Eric Ambler’s heroes who find themselves in similar predicaments, he doesn’t have the resources to sort himself out, (which is a bit surprising for a lawyer). He’s rather wet and terribly boring, slavishly acceding to Nina’s every whim. As a man who has long taken his own wife for granted, he can’t believe how lucky he is to have Nina. It’s clear she’s just using him, although near the beginning she does tell Enid:
‘Should anything go wrong,’ said Nina faintly, ‘please be kind to Douglas. He’s a good man.’ (p8)
Nina, is notable by her absence for most of the novel, although she’s there in Ashburner’s fevered imagination constantly. Thankfully the rude art-snob Bernard and sympathetic painter Enid largely make up for her disappearance bringing some balance to the situation.
I really enjoyed the majority of this short novel. In the final chapter Bainbridge forsakes her usual dark humour and rapier-wit to bring things to a rather blunt ending which was unconvincing given the mystery that Bainbridge had built up throughout the novel. Many questions about various characters’ intentions remain unanswered in the rush to the finish.
Most of Bainbridge’s novels to this point had been based on her life in one way or another, but I don’t know if Winter Garden had its origins in her own experience. She would return to plunder her own youth for An Awfully Big Adventure in 1989, but her next, Watson’s Apology would the first of her historical ones, these two marking the turning point in her writing career. (8/10)
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Source: Own copy.
This book also crossed off the square ‘Revolves around a holiday’ from my Bookbingo card.