THE GIRL IN THE POLKA DOT DRESS by Beryl Bainbridge
“When Rose, voice quivering, told Washington Harold what she’d seen, he said it didn’t do to focus on what might have happened, better to rejoice at a fortunate result. Most deaths, he opined, were accidental, even the vicious ones.”
Review by Roger Brunyate В AUG 31, 2011)
The late Beryl Bainbridge, who died in 2010, is better known in Britain than over here. The winner of the Whitbread Award, and five times shortlisted for the Booker Prize, she was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2000, joining AS Byatt and preceding Margaret Drabble. She published sixteen novels over the course of her life, and was working on her seventeenth, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress at the time of her death. Cast in a clear trajectory heading for an unmistakable conclusion, it does not feel unfinished, though the enigmatic compression which I gather is typical of all her books may perhaps be a little more enigmatic than usual.
This is a road trip novel, reflecting a journey across America that Bainbridge herself made in 1968, but this is a nightmare America where nothing comes quite into focus. A young Englishwoman named Rose, a dental receptionist, arrives from London with a few items in a suitcase and an absurdly small amount of money. Her ticket has been paid for by a man she knows as Washington Harold (though he actually lives in Baltimore), who obviously expects a gratifying holiday liaison. But Rose is not as he expected, either in appearance or behavior. She has come to America to reconnect with someone referred to only as Dr. Wheeler, who had somehow been very important to Rose during her adolescence. Harold, it appears, also wants to find Wheeler, though for very different motives which he keeps hidden at first. But Wheeler himself is elusive, both in character and location. At times he seems some kind of preacher or guru; at times a political operative; sometimes even a revolutionary. He never stays in one place for very long. Rose and Harold’s search takes them in a camper from Washington to upstate New York, then across the country to Malibu and finally Los Angeles.
The early summer of 1968 was a troubled time. The Vietnam War was at its height. Rose arrives in a Baltimore still seething from the race riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King; she will arrive in Los Angeles the day that Robert Kennedy is killed. In between, Rose and Harold will be exposed to several moments of random violence themselves, and news will come through of the attempted shooting of Andy Warhol in New York: “Rose, tone truculent, asked him why Yanks kept shooting each other; was it because they were all allowed to own guns? It was obvious she’d never heard of Warhol.” Indeed, she is neither well educated nor worldly wise. But we do find out a little more about her traumatic past and discover that, despite her flirtations with religion, she is not quite as innocent as she might appear. As Harold drops in on former friends, we find out a little more about his life also, with hints about why he is so determined to track down the mysterious Dr. Wheeler.
The novel comes to a poignant focus at the end, but few of the mysteries are completely cleared up; I suspect they were never meant to be. Despite much detail about driving, diners, campsites, and roadside restrooms (and extended play on the different American and British expectations for personal hygiene), there is a slight layer of unreality to the whole story; this is America as viewed through a B-movie lens. But in some respects America IS a B movie, and 1968 was a nightmare from which the country has never fully woken. I wish I could be sure that this is Bainbridge’s point.
When I look back and see that none of her American characters (Wheeler, Harold, and all his friends) can be placed unambiguously as to socio-economic status, I wish I could be sure that this was deliberate obfuscation rather than ignorance. I admit to having been thrown for a loop early on, when very little of Rose’s journey seemed to fit. How could she work four hours in the dentist’s office before taking the bus to Heathrow for her transatlantic flight? At what airport would she walk through the rain straight from the plane to the arrivals lounge? I live in Baltimore, and know that no sensible route from there to Washington would take three hours and approach the capital from the West. Were these errors, or deliberate choices to knock the reader off balance? Eventually, I gave in to them and spent the rest of the book in the waking dream that Bainbridge presumably intended. But the fact that this is a posthumous novel — perhaps unfinished, perhaps inadequately edited — raises unfortunate doubts in addition to those so magnificently planted by the author.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 2 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Europa Editions (August 30, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||Not Yet|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page Beryl Bainbridge|
|EXTRAS:||Man Booker Bridesmaid|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||More stories of America from foreign travelers:|
- A Weekend with Claud (1967; 1979)
- Another Part of the Wood (1968; 1979)
- Harriet Said… (1972)
- The Dressmaker (1973)
- The Bottle Factory Outing (1974)
- Sweet William (1975)
- A Quiet Life (1976)
- Injury Time (1977)В
- Young Adolf (1978)
- Winter Garden (1980)
- Watson’s Apology (1984)
- An Awfully Big Adventure (1989)
- The Birthday Boys (1991)
- Every Man for Himself (1996)В
- Master Georgie (1998)
- According to Queeney (2001)
- The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress (August 2011)