It’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, guys! Somehow, I haven’t actually read any more books by Beryl Bainbridge since the last week organised by Annabel – during which I read Injury Time, Sweet William, and Something Happened Last Week, reviews of all of which you can find under my Bainbridge tag by clicking on the tag above or choosing ‘Bainbridge’ from the dropdown Browse menu. Well, I’m very glad that Annabel resurrected this reading week, as it has brought The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) to the top of my tbr pile – and it was everything I would expect from Beryl.
I actually read the whole thing on train journeys to and from London – i.e. it’s pretty short. And I even finally managed to stop calling it The Bottle Factory Opening in my head; it is, after all, focused on an outing rather than a grand opening. That is the main ‘event’ of the novel: all the workers at the bottle factory are going to go on a picnic, from the families of immigrants who put up with the low wages offered to the two women who are the focus of the novel, and who stick labels on wine bottles (while maintaining that all the wines are the same).
The Bottle Factory Outing would work very well with other novels I grouped back when I was doing Five From the Archive regularly (I must bring that back) and grouped together five excellent books about pairs of women. It’s chiefly about Freda and Brenda, who have a typically Bainbridgian dysfunctional relationship. They’re not quite friends – they moved in together after a moment of misunderstanding, and they’re not particularly compatible as housemates. Not even housemates: they share a bed, with a bolster and a line of books down the middle.
Freda is forthright and confident; Brenda is nervous and awkward. But nobody in a Beryl Bainbridge novel deals well with others (it seems) and she lends the same spikiness and discomfort to The Bottle Factory Outing that I’ve come to love elsewhere. There is affection and well-meaning alongside, but of the sort that cannot survive the awkwardness of everyday encounters.
Oh, and Beryl is funny. This awkwardness definitely permeates into both humour and unpleasantness. This paragraph combines the two…
She couldn’t think how to discourage him – she didn’t want to lose her job and she hated giving offence. He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly. She stood there wriggling, saying breathlessly ‘Please don’t, Rossi,’ but he tickled and she gave little smothered laughs and gasps that he took for encouragement.
‘You are a nice clean girl.’
‘Oh, thank you.’
It’s basically assault, of course, but the mattress comment is quintessential Bainbridge – a moment of levity thrown in that also illuminates the situation and gives a unique description.
And the outing? Well, it is not free from disaster. And it is the culmination of the different strands of the novel in a dramatic way that one feels Bainbridge has earned throughout; every moment leading up to it somehow both dramatic and mundane at once, wrapped together in her slightly distorted view of the world. She finds the bizarre amongst the ordinary, and somehow turns it back upon itself to seem ordinary too. It’s been great to get back to Beryl.