A.N. Wilson

The way to dusty death

Beryl Bainbridge’s last novel is a haunting echo of her own final years, according to A. N. Wilson

Beryl Bainbridge’s last novel is a haunting echo of her own final years, according to A. N. Wilson

Some writers die years before bodily demise. They lose their grip. In the last five or six years of life, Beryl Bainbridge feared that this was happening, or had happened, to her. The books which had come in a steady flow from middle age onwards slowed to a trickle, and she was seized, not merely by illness, but by a black sense that the ‘bloody book’ on which she was engaged would not come. Yet her last book, all but completed, suggests something odder was happening in her case. A prescient friend had a theory, during those years in which Bainbridge struggled to write The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. She can’t or won’t write it, said the friend, because she fears, or knows, that when she finishes it, she will die.

Clearly, such talk is only talk. But the idea that this is really about Bainbridge’s own death returned to me frequently as I read this puzzling story. It is very gripping, very funny and deeply mysterious. She has abandoned the oblique historical miniatures with which her last decade had been occupied — the worlds of Dr Johnson or the Crimean war — and she has returned to that vein of comedy in which a self- projection becomes caught up in a series of grotesque, fantastical events.

This was always a winning formula with Bainbridge, whether it was her childhood self in Harriet Said — in which she spied upon the appalling marital fumblings of a man who had abused her, as modern parlance would say, among the wooded sand-dunes of Formby, before murdering his wife; or whether it was Injury Time, in which a catastrophically incompetent attempt at a dinner party for her married secret lover turns into a scene of horror, with the diners taken hostage.

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