Right. It’s 1968 so I can party along with everyone else at the ‘club’ organised by Simon over at Stuck in a Book, and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. The dedicated duo have been working their way through the decades, celebrating books issued in 1924, 1938, 1947 and 1951, and for each of those years there are novels I know and love – but I have failed to join in because Life, The Universe and Everything got in the way!
This time around I was determined to make an effort, but when I looked at the list my heart sank because I’ve read virtually none of the fiction titles, with the exception of Tigers are Better Looking, a collection of short stories by Jean Rhys (which I mentioned here), and Christa Wolf’s wonderful novel The Quest for Christa T, which I planned to re-read, to refresh my memory But, alas, I but couldn’t find it, so I put Plan B into operation and bought Muriel Spark’s The Public Image and Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge, and read them last week, while I was cat and rabbit sitting for my elder daughter.
Both authors are known for their sharp wit, their ability to put uncomfortable relationships under the microscope, and their dark humour. And Another Part of the Wood is very dark indeed. Here we have a disparate group of people staying in ramshackle huts in an isolated Welsh wood where facilities are pretty basic. And in this wild setting the thin veneer of civilisation peels away from the enclosed group and human failings are exposed – spite, cruelty, selfishness, carelessness, neglect, self-delusion…
They are damaged people whose behaviour damages others, and none of them is likable, but for once this doesn’t matter; it’s the interplay between the characters that’s important, and the tension this creates, and it means there are no heroes or villains, just people. From the outset there’s a sense of impending doom and disaster as normal life is thrown into chaos, but there’s no redemption or resolution as the story makes its way to a shocking – and very abrupt – end.
As a kind of suburban satire it’s sometimes compared to Mike Leigh’s black comedy Abigail’s Party, but I think it’s more like Nuts in May, though maybe the setting which brought that to mind. In Bainbridge’s tale the holiday-makers are staying at Nant MacFarley Camp, so named by the owner’s son George MacFarley. Local resident Willie , who looks after the ‘estate’ when the family are absent, calls it the Glen, while George’s mother refers to it as The Family Resting Ground (because it’s a ‘haven to which they could retreat when the demands of city life became overwhelming). And his friend Balfour thinks of it as the Labour Camp, because there’s so much work to do.
George is a giant of a man who had a solitary childhood and is now a solitary man who seldom speaks and is obsessed with the Holocaust. He’s also strangely concerned for the welfare of Balfour, who is a tool turner in a factory (working with a machine, not with his hands) but spends much of his spare time helping George and running a boys’ club which provides lads with visits to the camp. Poor Balfour doesn’t have a lot going for him: he’s got no self-confidence, is shy, spotty, stutters, and suffers from some unspecified illness which causes him to have funny turns.
Also staying at the camp are George’s friend Joseph, with his young son Roland, his girl-friend Dottie, and Kidney, a grossly overweight youth who obviously has what we would now call learning difficulties. The exact nature of his condition is never explained. All we know is that he takes three tablets to sedate him, and that Joseph maintains there is nothing wrong with him and all he needs is diet and exercise – but, quickly loses interest in his protégé. And he shows an equal lack of interest in Dottie or his son – he doesn’t even know if the boy is 7 or 8. Poor Roland has to sleep in the barn and is generally left to his own devices.
Last to arrive are Lionel and his wife May, one of the most ill-matched couples I’ve ever encountered. Lionel’s obsession is the war, which he appears to have enjoyed (despite being shot in the buttock), and he’s very possessive and protective of his wife, who he always calls ‘Sweetheart’ – but he doesn’t make love to her. Instead he reads her stories… A vicious, spiteful bottle blonde, she is older than she would care to admit, thinks her husband is a fool – and has no qualms about telling him so. She hates everything about Lionel, especially his small moustache, his bald head, his big belly, and the fact that he never calls her by her name: yet at the same time he makes her feel safe and protected.
You wonder how of these people ever came to be together, because none of them are able to connect with others. They are all self-obsessed, selfish and unreliable in the way they view themselves and others. Lionel, for example, ‘had no notion of himself before 1939’ and ‘couldn’t be sure that his memories were exact’.
Thinking about the others, Balfour, who has odd moment s of clear-sightedness, says: “They didn’t really feel they belonged to anyone any more.” But he is just isolated and emotionally stunted, and when tragedy strikes he feels nothing, and knows he will only be able to respond when he sees his mother’s reaction to the event.
Another part of the wood was Bainbridge’s second novel but already her style was established. In her 1981 revision she cut her pared back writing even further, which may account for the sense of dislocation and alienation. It’s sly, funny, dark and tragic, and haven’t done it justice, but I’ll definitely read it again.
PS: You can see what everyone else has been reading by clicking here.