Review: ‘An Awfully Big Adventure’ by Beryl Bainbridge

awfully big adventure
An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge (Abacus edition, 2003)
It has taken me some time to get around to reading my first Beryl Bainbridge novel and I’m not quite sure why; I suppose other books that appealed to me more kept coming along and usurping Beryl in my list of authors to try. To be honest, An Awfully Big Adventure came up as the answer in a quiz I was doing recently and…well, there are worse reasons for choosing your next book to read!

As well as being mentioned in a quiz, it was also the book I had heard the most about; it has been acclaimed by many reviewers as one of her best and is one of five of her novels that made it to the Booker Prize shortlists, featuring on the shortlist for 1990. It was also made into a film in 1995 but that passed me by.

So, what did I think? Well I’m sorry to say I was disappointed. Perhaps, having read a few reviews, I had set my expectations unrealistically high. Perhaps I would feel differently about the book with a second reading… whatever the cause, I shall try and unpick my thoughts here.

Stella is a 16 year old in Liverpool and the year is around 1950 – not long after the end of the war. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the boarding house they run and has just failed her mock exams for her school certificate. Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily decide to try getting her a job in the theatre, so with a few coaching lessons under her belt, Stella goes off to try her hand at the Liverpool Rep. Not only young, Stella is also very naive and innocent in the ways of the world. The theatre provides a sharp introduction into the adult world. Though there are figures in the theatre who take her a little under their wing, there are the whole gamut of eccentric characters working at the theatre and Stella has to learn and grow up very quickly.

 – Spoilers coming up –
(Apologies- I can’t write about this novel without writing about some of the more complex aspects, which includes the ending)

Stella falls hard and fast for company Director, Meredith. She learns early on that Meredith has a partner, Hilary, but fails to read Meredith’s mannerisms and mistakes the absent Hilary for a girlfriend, rather than the boyfriend that he is. When a celebrity actor, O’Hara, turns up to take the place of another injured cast member, Stella, though still infatuated with Meredith, finds herself the object of O’Hara’s affections and somewhat disinterestedly decides to give up her virginity to this man; seemingly out of curiosity and politeness and her inability to say ‘no’.

…”the way you were brought up… it was impossible to say no if you didn’t want to do something.”*

Death and pathos are also bound up in the novel: Stella’s absent mother, who she rings from a public phone box up to several times a day; the troubled personal lives of the actors; the witnessing of the gory death of a delivery boy; and ultimately the death of her first sexual partner (I hesitate to use the word ‘lover’), O’Hara. All of these events are wound up with deeper meanings and further discoveries but I don’t want to divulge any more plot revelations here in case readers would like to discover the book for themselves.

This is all gritty, meaningful stuff, so what was I missing? First and foremost I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. There was a lack of depth to the characters on the page – more is left unsaid and hinted at but I would have liked a greater understanding of the principle character right from the offset; you get half way through the book before you find out that she has red hair. This in itself isn’t all that important but I find it very difficult to form a relationship with a character who is so sketchily drawn. The novel also opens with what appears to be the end of the novel, Chapter 0  – I had to read this about three times to make sense of it; when I finally realised I was reading the end of the book I carried on but I was tempted to give up on the book then and there.

“I don’t write fiction.”*

After a couple of chapters I was curious to see where the plot was headed as there is no denying Beryl Bainbridge’s mastering of her art as a writer is excellent; the writing is clever and the plot twists not obvious at all. I became curious about Stella’s destiny. After all, she’s this young naive girl thrust into this theatrical, sexual world with no experience or know how. She also seems to have a tentative grasp on her own mental equilibrium, while some of the other characters clearly have no such grasp on theirs. It became necessary to find out how the book ended.

When I’m reading, or when I’ve finished a book I like to relate it to the author themselves; see if I can find out a bit about their intentions, their lives. Everyone to some extent draws on their own life experiences when writing, especially realistic fiction, so I find it very interesting to read a bit about author’s lives or what they have said about their own novels.

“A writer’s head… is just a hotchpotch of impressions from the past, things you’ve read, words you want to write down; it all gets mingled up here.”*

Beryl Bainbridge says in an interview in 2003, ‘I don’t write fiction’. All of her novels are based on her life experiences or on history. When she was 16 she became an actress at the Liverpool Rep. She essentially wrote herself into the character of Stella and the rest of the theatre company are all based on real people she knew, if not necessarily real events. This, alone, is what the made book more interesting for me and might make the book more satisfactory on a second reading than a first. There is no denying the author’s skill with words and writing technique but I found a coldness to the book and the characters on a first reading. Personally, I can appreciate the book as a clever book of hidden depths, worthy of its place on the Booker shortlist but not one that I particularly enjoyed reading. I would liken it to my appreciation of, for example, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – there is plenty in there to analyse and appreciate but it would never make it even close to my top 100 desert island reads.

If anyone reading this has any suggestions for a Beryl Bainbridge novel I might enjoy more / should not miss out on, please leave me a comment and let me know.

About the Author

Dame Beryl Margaret Bainbridge, DBE (21 November 1932 – 2 July 2010) was born in Liverpool and died in London. She is buried in Highgate Cemetery. She won the Guardian Fiction Prize with The Bottle Factory Outing and the Whitbread Prize twice with Injury Time, and Every Man for Himself. The five novels shortlisted for The Booker Prize were The Dressmaker, The Bottle Factory Outing, An Awfully Big Adventure, Every Man for Himself, and Master Georgie.

Where to Buy

You can buy An Awfully Big Adventure from your local independent bookshop, or you can buy online from hive.co.uk and still support your local independent bookshop by nominating them to receive a percentage of your sale on Hive. Shop local to keep your High Streets alive.

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*All quotes are from BBC Radio 4 Book Club with Beryl Bainbridge, Sunday 6 April, 2003 – retrieved 09 February, 2016 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02czn73
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