Thursday, October 28, 2010
51. A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge
I picked up this book in Amsterdam with the weird feeling that my wife might like it. I ended up reading it because it was thin and I've been enjoying the British writers a lot these days. Now I am not sure that I would recommend it to my wife. A Quiet Life is about a young adolescent growing up in a dysfunctional family in postwar Britain. It's very well-written, but wow is it unpleasant. I have a kind of mild crush on British culture. This book was like discovering your crush has genital warts. Man, I forgot how totally depressing and crushingly class-conscious the British were (and probably still are, though it seems to have improved significantly). The boy is 15. His father and mother are in a constant passive-aggressive battle. They once were quite rich and lost it all and she is obsessed with maintaining the two livable rooms in the small house completely clean so the family spends the whole time cramped into the back kitchen. The daughter is "creative", doesn't where shoes and goes out every night to meet a German POW. The son is trying to hold all this together, desperate to try and prevent his parents from getting into conflict, totally shamed by his sister's behaviour. He gets in a suppressed fury when she does anything that might call attention to him or the family.
In short, it is almost entirely depressing. There is one light moment when the parents laugh about something an unannounced guest said. It's so deftly done and well captured, that it made me smile. Bainbridge is clearly a talented writer. But other than that moment and a dark but enjoyable moment when the father flips out and decides to burn a chair that he is always bumping into, it's basically non-stop bourgeois angst of the most annoying kind. Even in the British kitchen sink genre, there is always at least a rebellious energy, a certain anarchy as well as an appreciation for the rich social culture of the working classes. Here it is just all blandness and suppression.
Even worse, as the book goes on you see that the most sympathetic character is the sister. She is revealed to be sort of creative and fun-loving. The whole book seems like an attack on the brother (who really is a pill, dude, just get over it!) and I see that Beryl Bainbridge actually did have a German POW lover, so I wonder if this book isn't her own angry woman attack. It sounds like her works matured and broadened in scope, but A Quiet Life just seemed like a lashing out and though well-written, I must condemn it.