The number of times I have stood before a bookcase, eyeing up the shelves, pull a book only to change my mind...oh, such fuss. So when I recently decided to give Beryl Bainbridge a try and the bookshop was closing in less than fifteen minutes it came down to 'grab or miss out'. If I'm being honest it was the egg and chips on the cover that drew me in. Well, the immediate correlation would be a cosy domestic scene but in the case of this story, I am surprised the egg and chips are not exhibited sliding down a kitchen wall instead of on a plate.
The book begins a few years after World War II at the Lyceum café. Alan orders a pot of tea and waits for his sister, Madge, to arrive. In his pocket is their mother's engagement ring which tradition usually dictates goes to a daughter upon death. It has been fifteen years since the siblings have been in each others company and in that time very little has changed. Madge arrives late and dishevelled; more interested in the cakes and scones than discussing jewellry or sentiments.
'...she had sent that distasteful letter written on this toilet paper, from some town in France, suggesting that if they were going to put Mother in the same grave as Father it might be a waste of time to carve 'Rest in Peace' on the tombstone.'
The story then drifts back in time to when Alan is seventeen, standing in the middle of the whirlwind that is his home life. And if that's not bad enough, yet another irritating boil has arisen on his neck, right at his shirt collar. There was a time when his father provided extremely well but lately Alan is not quite sure what his father does for a living but it has involved everything from '...paint, cloth and timber' and involves many phone calls followed by greedy smiles and hand-rubbing. Alan's mother dresses beautifully and cares very much about appearances. She never once misses the opportunity to correct her husband when he refers to the garden as a 'yard' or the lounge as a 'back room'. Husband and wife choreograph their movements through the house to avoid each other as much as possible which means Alan is very much an intermediary for their conversation. Madge is a bit of a street rat, roaming the woods and dunes in her bare feet, hair blowing in the wind. Much of that time in the great outdoors is spent in the arms of a German POW.
The family dynamics in this book very much mirror what life was like for Bainbridge at home surrounded by dysfunction and yes, she also had a lengthy affair with a German POW. A Quiet Life is delightfully full of the chaos and melodrama which makes for entertaining stories years down the road, such as when Alan's father has had enough of the excess of old chairs in the house. Grabbing some newsprint and a package of matches he heads for the garden...
'Father spat with anger. His cheeks wobbled as he tried to find words. Something fell from him and landed in the fire. Sparks eddied upwards into the trees. He clutched his mouth and Mother turned away in disgust. Alan knelt and groped in the warm ashes for the dentures. As Mother ran back up the garden she began to laugh.'
In the early stages of this book I felt more than a bit sorry for Alan. Ever hype-alert to any foreseeable conflict within the house the poor thing turns up the volume on the radio when his father approaches the front walk to drown out any arguing which may ensue. Further into the story though it becomes apparent that the traits he so disliked in his father have come home to roost in his own critical nature and penny-pinching ways. It is also interesting to note that while this book is quite autobiographical, the main character is Alan and not his wayward sister, Madge. Being able to poke fun at the neuroses of certain family members from a distance and come out looking like the one who had it right (or at least almost) all along was rather clever, if you ask me. A delightful tragi/comedy and excellent introduction to the world of Beryl Bainbridge.