I had never read anything by Beryl Bainbridge until this arrived recently. I'm not sure how shameful an admission that is -- I've always known she was a greatly admired writer but somehow she never swam into my ken. But now she has, I'm going to read some more.
So -- knowing nothing of her previous novels (this being her last, and published posthumously, as she was working on it literally until she died last year) I was unable to judge how typical it was of her writing. But I rather gather that she was noted for what's been called her elliptical style -- "of, relating to, or marked by extreme economy of speech or writing". Yes indeed.
This is the story of Rose, from Kentish Town, who has travelled to America to look for Dr Wheeler, who she knew when she was growing up. The year is 1968. At the airport she is met by Washington Harold, a man she met briefly in England, who has a daffodil yellow beard and has promised to help her to find Wheeler. Harold has his own reasons for wanting to find Wheeler but he doesn't reveal them to Rose. He has got a camper van and in it the two of them set off on a bizarre and seemingly (to them) endless journey across the United States, East to West, with Wheeler always a step ahead of them. At last they arrive in Los Angeles, where the elusive doctor apparently is, since he is travelling in the entourage of Robert (Bobby) Kennedy.
Now, my grasp of American history in the 1960s being slender, to say the least, I was not aware that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles in June 1968, still less that after the shooting, witnesses reported seeing a girl in a polka dot dress running from the hotel calling out "We shot him!". I'm actually glad I didn't know this until the end of the novel and I suppose telling you about it constitutes a spoiler, though a couple of reviews I've read mention it, so maybe it's common knowledge. In any case it will not spoil anything, as the ending is as elliptical and ambiguous as any ending could possibly be. It has been said that this is owing to Bainbridge's death before the novel was finished, though it has been edited by her close friend Brendan King, who knew her intentions but who has not added any material. So I have no idea what, if anything, might have happened after the existing ending, but I was perfectly happy with it as it was as it seemed totally in keeping with the rest of this fascinating, sometimes puzzling, but always entrancing novel.
There are many things to love about The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. The novel gives a wonderfully vivid picture of that hot American summer, the country reeling from the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, the seedy motels and dreadful campsites, the endless roads through endless landscapes of varying beauty and ugliness. Then there are the extraordinary and often eccentric people encountered on the journey, Harold's friends, generally rather peculiar and politically minded intellectuals, who mostly bemuse, or are bemused by, Rose. And there's Harold, of course, stressed, angry, secretive, hypochondriac, and completely unable to understand Rose.
But this is essentially Rose's story, and Rose is a character you will never forget. Harold, whose brief meeting with her in London has left him with the impression that she is "a hell of a friendly girl, if somewhat hysterical", soon starts describing her to himself as a "retard". This is mainly because she has an aversion to washing, lives in the past and the future and rarely if ever connects with the present, and is frequently confused by the people she meets and the things she sees. Now and again, though, she will surprise him with some astonishingly apt and profound insight into human life, and she is far more perceptive about people and their psychology than Harold will ever be. But though we do from time to time see Rose through Harold's eyes, the main perspective of the the novel belongs to Rose. Her life story, which only gets revealed slowly and, yes, elliptically, is of a painful childhood with warring and abusive parents, the birth of a child as a result of "true love" (Rose), or "a dirty union between underage fornicators" (Mother), and its enforced adoption when she was fifteen, and frequent and generally unpleasant sexual encounters, usually with total strangers. But through all this, Rose has been sustained by the wonderfully good, generous, kind-hearted and philosophical Dr Wheeler, who appeared in her life when she was still a child and whose wise words have remained as her mainstay through the ensuing difficult years. But is Dr Wheeler all she believes him to be?
This is a novel of less than 200 pages, and every page a gem. Has anybody out there read any other of Bainbridge's novels? and if so, what should I be looking for next?