This is my second Bainbridge for BB Reading Week. Published in 1989, it was shortlisted for the Booker but was beaten by Possession which I don't think it should have been. Perhaps not everyone would agree with me -- I suppose it depends whether you prefer your novels big, show-offy, and plot-driven or slim, subtle, quirky and dark.
Here's what the Guardian obituary said about Bainbridge's writing practice:
Her discipline as a writer was intense. Each novel emerged from a few months in which she wrote through the nights, smoked a lot, slept and ate little. She constantly read aloud what she had produced, to get "the music of the prose" right, and in an alchemical process of cutting and perfecting, she would distil every dozen or so draft pages into one sheet without a single wasted word.
The books that survived this surgery were short. In case anyone called them slight, she would quote Voltaire's apology when he wrote a long letter: "I didn't have time to make it shorter."
An Awfully Big Adventure, like many of BB's early novels, is partly autobiographical. As she said once in an interview, "I have never really written fiction; what would be the point? What is more peculiar, more riveting, devious and horrific than real life?" Based on her experience as an assistant stage manager in a Liverpool theatre, it is the story of teenage Stella, whose Uncle Vernon has sent her to work at the theatre because despite her brains she has left school with no qualifications and the only alternative is working behind the counter in Woolworths. Abandoned as a baby by her mother, brought up by Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily, Stella lives largely in a world of her own imagination, transforming everyday events into dramas that have little or no relation to reality. She falls desperately in love with the director, Meredith Potter, who shows no interest at all in her for reasons obvious to everyone except herself, and fantasises about offering herself to him:
In the mirror above the wash-basin she spoke to Meredith. 'Good evening. I'm Stella Bradshaw. I don't expect you'll ever want to love me'. It was only make-believe but her mouth trembled at the suggestion. She thought she looked haunted, as though there was a demon standing at her shoulder. Perhaps it had something to do with the swooping shadows thrown by the naked light bulb swinging in the draught from the window.
There was something wrong with her hair: she had too much forehead and her neck wasn't long enough. When she was concentrating her eyebrows shot up and her mouth fell open. But then, when she willed her face to remain immobile, her mind stopped working.
Stella gets a small part in Caesar and Cleopatra, and then the job of waving the torch around to represent Tinkerbell in the production of Peter Pan. When the leading man breaks his leg, Meredith sends for O'Hara, a rather distinguished actor who nevertheless agree to come back to Liverpool and give his Captain Hook. O'Hara is strangely drawn to Stella and manages to seduce her, and though she is far from enthralled by the experience she continues to visit him in the rather seedy bedsit he has chosen to stay in for old times sake. But when O'Hara pays a visit to Uncle Vernon he discovers things about Stella's origins that disturb him very much and everything ends tragically.
Having now read three of BB's novels (I read, and loved, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress almost exactly a year ago) and almost finished a fourth, I'm aware that she seems to be fascinated with young women who have a peculiar perspective on life, seeing everything somehow slantwise, and lacking what most people would think of as ordinary morality. I can believe that this would not be everyone's cup of tea -- the often hilarous dark humour, the bizarre characters, the frequently shocking events -- but I am completely in love with these novels and can't wait to get my hands on some more of them.