So much of my 1968 Club reading has been non-fiction about the first half of the 20th century, and it’s about time I interspersed a novel that is well and truly 1960s. Another Part of the Wood was Beryl Bainbridge’s second published novel, and there are already many hallmarks of what makes Bainbridge so unusual – a cast of unpleasant, warring characters; unexpected catastrophes; not quite letting you know what is going on. The copy I read is one I bought in 2012, and was from a Penguin series where each cover was designed by Allen Jones. I do love it when reprint series like this look beyond the obvious. We don’t need another edition of Frankenstein.
Another Part of the Wood takes place at a holiday camp, but one which feels very much like a prison camp – a group of people are staying in extremely basic huts, without plumbing or sufficient food. It’s in rural Wales, but the ‘holidaymakers’ have come from the town – George, the owner of the site, isn’t expecting all of them; nor is his stuttering, anxious assistant Balfour. Characters pop up out of nowhere, with unspecified pasts and past relationships, adding to the chaotic tangle Bainbridge creates. George is only really expecting Joseph – a man with big ideas and ideals, who has come from London intending to discuss politics and philosophy. He comes with Dotty, a girlfriend who is tiring of him, and his son Roland. And a mysterious boy (man? It’s unclear) with the ominous name Kidney. He is clearly disturbed in some way, and must take his pills regularly, though Joseph is keen to get him off them – and seems to believe that a bit of fresh air is all he needs. What does he need? We don’t know, because Bainbridge tells us so little – making him all the more sinister as an unpredictable entity.
This is a short novel, and much of it focuses on the claustrophobia of these characters (and Lionel and May, who also come; Lionel’s salient characteristic is that he had a buttock shot off once) and the fraught tension as they bicker and singularly fail to enjoy themselves. Lynn Barber writes in her introduction to this edition that Bainbridge’s initial drafts were often ten times the length of the final novel – that she’d cut away and cut away, making sure nothing superfluous came in. The sparseness works; her writing style is confident even at this early stage, and not a word is wasted – indeed, we aren’t told enough to know quite where we are.
We can feel a dread that something terrible will be the climax to the novel – but also that other moments of huge significance will be thrown away as everyday mundanities. And all I will add about the plot is another word: wasps.
In case you want proof that this is quintessential 1968, here’s a description of a coat that Dotty gets from a shop:
The flowered coat was made of some kind of velvet. It rippled and shone. It was orange and blue and green and black, with a mustard-yellow ground, and there were buttons small as beads going from wrist to elbow. Balfour thought it was terrible.
He prayed she wouldn’t wear it now. He visualised her stalking, swathed in velvet, through the busy market town, the bell-bottoms of her denim trousers flaring out beneath the long and violently coloured hem.
It’s not replaced my favourite Bainbridge (which is Injury Time), but this is my fifth book by her, and it’s helping build up a picture of a strange, assured, quirky novelist who knew exactly the sort of book she wanted to write, and wrote it.