I wrote this earlier in the week, for Beryl Bainbridge Week, which is hosted by Annabel at Annabel’s House of Books. and went off to my elder daughter’s for a few days, expecting to be able to neaten this up and add a bit more. I had stuff in draft, and copied into Google docs so I could use my tablet, but I can’t have done it right, because WordPress wouldn’t let me do anything, which means I am a bit late, but it is the 19th, and the week ends today, so I’m just in time. And I’ve got part-written posts for two other. Beryl Bainbridge books which I will try and post later this evening.
I don’t want to the Beryl’s week, because I love her work. I love her spikiness, the pared back prose, the dark humour, the acerbic wit, and the way her characters never quite seem to engage with each other. And there are few writers who can match her when it comes to portraying the small details of social class that might easily go unnoticed. So I’m posting this now, and hope that is OK
So here we are, my thoughts on A Quiet Life, where the sense of disassociation is very strong. Even the landscape seems alienated, with grim houses and a bleak beach. And the period is equally isolated – late 1940s, after the war, but well before any benefits of peace have arrived, so it’s neither one nor the other. However, the novel opens 25 years later, as brother and sister Alan and Madge meet for the first time in 15 years, following the death of their mother. Madge, never one to observe the social niceties of life, is late. Alan (as ever) is anxious and disgruntled. The tone is set from the outset:
“Madge hadn’t even bothered to turn up the funeral. Instead she had sent that distasteful letter written on thin toilet paper, from some town in France, 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.”
That one sentence tells you lots about the people involved in this tale. There’s Madge, who flouts convention, is very outspoken and doesn’t mind what people think. And there’s Alan (throughout the novel we see things from his point of view), who is conventional, strait-laced, and worries a lot about doing the right thing and what the neighbours will say. And then there are their warring parents.
Seeing Madge disturbs Alan, and makes him think of the past, which he doesn’t enjoy. In his opinion she hasn’t moved on and accepted the present.”She didn’t rearrange her face the way Joan had managed to do over the years, the way he had,” he thinks. And with that we’re back in post-war Liverpool, looking at their dysfunctional childhood, and pondering how the same events produce two people with such divergent views of the past and such differing strategies for coping with life.
The novel covers a few months leading up to the father’s death, Themes of perception and the nature of memory run through the novel. Just as Madge and Alan see the past from different perspectives, so each of their parents can give a different account of their tortured marriage. Is there a right or wrong way to view these things I wonder? And is anyone ever a reliable witness of their own past, I wonder? Or anyone else’s, come to that?
Alan is 17 and he wants a quiet life. He’s not a loner – he has friends. and even acquires a girlfriend. But he’s built a kind of shell around himself as protection from the quarrels and shouting at home. His own emotions become deadened as he tries to take no notice of what is happening around him, and ensures that others take no notice of him. Yet at the same time he craves affection, and wants recognition for the fact that he is good and causes no trouble. He goes to youth club, and church, and rides his bike; anything to get out of the house, which is as cold and cheerless as the relationship between his parents.
Madge, two years younger, is equally anxious to escape, and sneaks off, barefoot, to be with a German prisoner of war, much to her brother’s horror. Actually, he’s shocked by her behaviour generally. She doesn’t suppress what is happening at home – I think her only way of coping is to acknowledge the situation, and to be outrageous, to shock and embarrass. Unlike Alan, she doesn’t mind what other people think. She’s noisy where he is quiet, extrovert where he is introvert, very independent and more aware of people’s feelings.
In their own ways both youngsters are trying to come to terms with their parents’ animosity towards each other.It is one toxic marriage, and the couple are so wrapped up in their own hatred and misery they haven’t the energy or the inclination to provide anything remotely resembling a loving parental relationship with their children, or to take any interest in their emotional well-being. You wonder how such a disparate couple ever met (on a No 22 tram, apparently), and what drew them together.
The family once lived in a big house, with a maid, but the father (a businessman, though the exact nature of his business is never disclosed) lost his money, and now they live in genteel semi-detached poverty. However, they still have a car and Alan attends a private school (albeit a third rate one), but puts him a cut above the grammar school boys, so his girlfriend’s mother regards him as a good catch.
The father not well educated, and is fussy, controlling and frighteningly bad tempered. He thinks his wife (Connie) is having an affair with one of his friends – but she spends every evening reading in the railway station waiting room. She’s better educated, and from a higher social class, but everything seems to be for show: they live in the cramped kitchen, because the lounge reserved for visitors.
And when it comes to visitors there’s a hilarious description of a Sunday afternoon tea when Connie’s parents and the father’s sister (aunt Nora) visit. People talk, but no-one listens, and everyone seems to be having a lone conversation, so the things they say bear no relation to what anyone else says or the questions they’ve been asked. It’s quite surreal really, and very funny, but sad at the same time.