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An Awfully Good Book

March 4, 2012 20 comments

An Awfully Big Adventure by Beryl Bainbridge. 1989 French title: Le Dernier amour du Capitaine Crochet (Out of print)

First thing, I wonder why the French publisher decided to give such a silly title to such a wonderful book. Of course, it is out of print! Who would like to buy a book entitled Captain Hook’s Last Love? A Disney fan looking for a spin-off of Peter Pan? Are there many such readers out there? To top it off, it relates to events that don’t happen until the last third of the book. But enough ranting, let’s talk about the novel.

The novel opens on an incomprehensible scene, a theatrical one, warning the reader that dramatic events just took place. Then the narration goes backward and starts telling the story.

Liverpool, early 1950s, Stella is 16. She lives with her Uncle Vernon and her Aunt Lily who run a small hotel, more a pension actually. Their clients are mostly tradesmen. Stella is a strange child, her schooling didn’t go well. She keeps to herself and often sounds off the mark. Uncle Vernon realised it was useless to force her into studying and called in a favor to have her hired at the local theatre. Stella took acting classes and she starts as an assistant. Meredith Potter and Rose Lipman run the theatre. It’s the beginning of the new season, other actors have been hired to set up a company. Except for Geoffrey, all were already actors before the war and some were even famous. All have issues, broken hearts, fears and some suffer from loneliness. They’re aging and seem a little ridiculous too.

We follow Stella who doesn’t act as a “normal” girl of sixteen would. Beryl Bainbridge drops hints here and there and we slowly get the picture. The girl’s mother is missing but why? Sick? Selfish? Run-away? Remarried? Stella discovers another world, helps with costumes, runs errands for the actors, plays small parts, performs in the backstage during the shows. She observes a lot and she’s quite disconcerting because she either has a flat mind and misses the obvious or happens to have an incredible insight on people. We witness the rehearsals, the nights at the local pub where the company meets and Stella progressively unfolds their lives. She has a crush on Meredith who can’t return the feeling, actually.

Stella had believed herself in love with him. Now when he allowed her so much of her time, she realized that what she had felt before was but a poor shade of the real thing. The very mention of his name caused her to tremble, and in his company she had the curious sensation that her feet and her nose had enlarged out of proportion. When he spoke to her she could scarcely hear what he said for the thudding of her lovesick heart and the chattering of her teeth. Often he told her she ought to wear warmer clothing.

Beautiful description of teenage crush. She worships him as a god and of course, he can’t be wrong, he can’t be mean and he has to be perfect in everything.

It’s a coming of age novel. Some company members try to educate Stella as she’s terribly ignorant or candid or innocent, whichever way you choose to look at it. Here’s a reporter taking advantage of her, as it happens several times in the story:

She tried to pull her hand free, but it was held fast. The protuberance under her fingers felt soft and hard at the same time, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Attempting to bring what Meredith would call a philosophical approach to her predicament, she pondered on the differences in men’s and women’s clothing. Trousers, she now realized, were so designed not because their wearers had funny legs but because men were constantly worried that an essential part of themselves might have gone missing. They wanted instant access, just to make sure things were in place. What was more puzzling was why they needed everyone else to check as well.

This passage also shows the author’s wonderful sense of humour. Actors and other theatre staff feel responsible for Stella. For example, an actress buys bras for her when she discovers she doesn’t have any. Bunny, Meredith’s right hand and stage manager, is a real keeper, following her at night from a distance to make sure she goes home safely. Uncle Vernon also cares about her a lot; he needs to let her grow up and it is difficult for him to adjust. I wondered why he insisted that she became an actress. At the time, it wasn’t a glamorous career for a woman. But that was all cleared up at the end of the book.

It’s also a book about how the past can backfire on you; how things you thought well kept in a box in the attic suddenly spring free and get back to you.

As an aside, An Awfully Big Adventure is a vivid picture of post-war England. The war isn’t the theme of the book but it’s unforgettable, it’s all in the details. People still suffer from war restrictions; Uncle Vernon’s hotel is an example. Hot water for a bath is a luxury. Clothes are expensive. Men are broken, physically or mentally.

Next door to the hotel was a garden laid out in memory of some worthy citizen of an earlier century, its beds planted with roses pruned brutally to the soil. The municipal railings had been taken away for the war effort and through the gaps in the makeshift fence of galvanized iron he saw a tramp in an army greatcoat sitting on a green bench.

The company’s state mirrors the city’s state. It’s a bittersweet tale, humans and city try to recover from the war, resume the occupations they had before these shattering years. It has left its marks and the reconstruction is slow.

I read An Awfully Big Adventure in English, in a paperback edition. Pff. I’m not good at British English, I’m sure I missed part of the fun. I couldn’t figure out the food they had on their plates. (What can be a buck rarebit?) It’s full of local expressions, some of them I knew, some other not. But I recently found a new teacher for purely British idioms, I should improve in the next months.

An Awfully Big Adventure was made into a film by Mike Newell in 1995. Hugh Grant plays Meredith (I don’t know why but I imagined Kenneth Branagh in that role) and Alan Rickman plays P.L. O Hara. Georgina Cates is a wonderful Stella. I watched it and it’s an excellent version of the book, really faithful.

Last but not least, this novel was among Guy’s virtual Christmas gifts. . Well chosen again, Guy, it’s three out of four now. Thanks for making me discover a new writer.

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