Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Winter Garden

Breaking my resolve to lay off the fiction (particularly novels written by women) for a while, I've just read a short Beryl Bainbridge which I happened to spot on the charity shop shelf. I read it partly from curiosity, as the title – Winter Garden – was unfamiliar to me, even though over the years I must have read almost everything Bainbridge wrote.
  Published in 1980, Winter Garden follows the misadventures of Douglas Ashburner, an outwardly sedate middle-aged lawyer who has unfortunately fallen in love with a flaky artist called Nina and is accompanying her on a state-organised cultural visit to the USSR (having told his wife he's on a fishing trip in Scotland). Also on the tour are two other artists, the quiet but sexually voracious Enid and the obstreperous egotist Bernard. As for Nina, she disappears almost as soon as the group get to the USSR – a bold move, losing one of your leading characters, especially as Bernard and, especially, Enid are rather thinly drawn. Mostly we see the action through the permanently bemused Douglas's eyes – and no wonder he's bemused, as the events unfolding around him are endlessly mystifying. They are also, much of the time, very funny, and the early chapters are classic Bainbridge – razor sharp, pared down, darkly comic, beautifully engineered. The perplexing madness of a Soviet-controlled 'cultural tour' is effortlessly evoked, and each chapter works perfectly. It's a hugely enjoyable ride. The problem is that the larger picture, the overarching plot, never quite comes into focus – or so it seemed to me – and remains so mysterious that it leaves the reader (this one at least) as bemused as poor Douglas Ashburner.
  Maybe I was missing something, but I think Winter Garden must count as a Bainbridge misfire, one that doesn't quite come together – but even a misfire by her is a lot more fun than many another esteemed writer's best efforts. In the end, perhaps, she'll be remembered more for her late historical novels than her earlier works (the same might be true of Penelope Fitzgerald), but it was a pleasant surprise to find one that I'd never read, or even heard of.


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