Review: The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge
Little, Brown, €17.99
When Beryl Bainbridge was on what proved to be her deathbed, entangled in tubes, she was insistent that I (and I'm sure others) get the doctors to give her 30 days in which to finish her novel.
Beryl moved uniquely on the cusp between a finely self-mocking wit and steely seriousness. Sometimes it was difficult to know quite what was going on. And was her protestation something of a performance to help us, her visitors, through the pain of watching her inexorable exit?
The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress shows that she was not only serious, she was desperate. She was obsessed with completing the novel and the novel aches for completion. Her long-time friend and editor, Brendan King, has put together the book, we are told, "from her working manuscript, taking into account suggestions Beryl made at the end of her life. No additional material has been included". When I finished the book for the second time, I wanted to write to him and say: are you sure there is no additional material? Just a few clues? Any clue will do.
What we have is an unfinished novel that blazes with Beryl's unique talent. The story is teased out stealthily and you have to be on the lookout. She wastes not a breath on unnecessary explanation. In brief, two people, Rose from England and Harold from America, drive across the latter's continent looking out for a Doctor Wheeler. Rose is about 30, but she met Wheeler, an American, in Liverpool, England, when she was a young girl and, one way or another, they kept in touch.
Wheeler has become a tutelary figure and almost mythic in her memory. She has got herself invited to America by Harold, a rather shadowy character who is using her to get to Wheeler, we learn eventually, to take revenge on him. Wheeler has, we understand, had an affair with Harold's wife, which was followed by her suicide.
They drive across America in pursuit of Wheeler, who is always a city or two ahead of them. There is something of the road movie about the novel, as we track through a dysfunctional country in an apocalyptic phase. Robert Kennedy is about to run for president. Assassinations are the nature of the times.
Harold is an intellectual and we keep meeting friends of his who want to talk politics. Rose is delphically self-absorbed and to Harold's horror seems to be banal, almost retarded. Rose is on the way to being one of Beryl Bainbridge's greatest creations.
She comes out of a violent background -- violent in words and manners, but violent also in the way in which her life has been decided for her. A love affair at 15 (the only time she was in love) with a boy her own age resulted in a child, ripped away for adoption at birth. Her father's weird anger drove her out of the house repeatedly. There was at least one violent rape attempt. Wheeler is the only beacon she has.
What is wonderful about her is the way that she is given an internal life through sentences that are brilliantly elliptical and often very funny. When Harold offers her a glass of wine, she shakes her head: "She wasn't into wine; in her opinion it took far too long to make one cheerful."
"The here and now meant little to her; it was what made her so unusual." She reflects that "judging from the state of the toilet bowl, Americans didn't know about Vim [a brand of toilet cleaner]". And then she will come out with something that shakes Harold: "It never does any good to dwell on things that can't be changed," she said. "That way madness lies." She is reluctant to wash, herself or her clothes: "Too much cleaning makes us susceptible to germs," she says authoritatively.
Rose regularly converses with her past and mumbles conversations to her dead father. The intercutting between past and present works like a dream.
On occasions when Harold and his friends talk politics, she takes part in the conversation but follows her own independent line. For instance, they are speaking about Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Rose pops up about "that song about a park in a rainstorm". She goes on to sing: "Macarthur's Park is singing in the rain ... " The others ignore her and continue the higher gossip, while she continues on her own sweet way.
It becomes clear that Harold is out to kill Wheeler. Rose, the waif, defeats any attempt he can muster to engage her, although typically when he does once have sex with her for a few seconds, she is quite pleased because she feels less bad about the money he is spending on her, taking her across America in his camper van. A debt has been paid.
Brief encounters mark their journey. At one place, they are cooked a lunch. The lady of the house, Philopsona, offers them chicken: "The birds," she trumpeted, were her pride and joy, each one with a name and fondled from birth. She never allowed anyone but herself to wring their necks. "It wouldn't be right," she assured Rose. "They need someone they can f***ing trust." Not long after that, the novel ends. We are then presented with a (real) report from the Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1968, which speaks of a "girl in a white dress with polka dots who ran from the hotel where Senator Robert F Kennedy was shot and said 'we shot him'". When we left Rose, she was wearing a polka-dot dress and had somehow got into the Ambassador Hotel. When we left Harold, he had shaved off his distinctive bushy beard. We knew he had a gun and he had severed his link with Rose.
Yet the newspaper report poses questions. If "Rose" did say "we shot him", who does the "we" refer to? And was the phrase "we shot him" said in triumph or panic or just another example of Rose hitting the nail on the head and moving on?
The problem is that between the novel and the LA Times report, you really want to see the join. This does not stop The Girl in the Polka-Dot Dress from being a superb and memorable work of fiction, even though it lacks the final completeness Beryl longed to give it.
Sunday Indo Living