Inspired by Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, I added The Bottle Factory Outing to my list of summer reads. I’ve never read Bainbridge before and had no idea what to expect, but was very pleasantly surprised.
The Bottle Factory Outing opens in the 1970s with flat mates Brenda and Freda watching the funeral of an elderly neighbour and the reader is immediately struck by the difference between the pair.
Freda was enjoying herself. She stopped a tear with the tip of her finger and brought it to her mouth. ‘I’m very moved,’ she observed, as the coffin went at an acute angle down the stairs. Brenda, who was easily embarrassed, didn’t care to be seen gawping at the window. She declined to look at the roof of the hearse, crowned with flowers like a Sunday hat, as the coffin was shoved in to place.
Freda is theatrical and flamboyant where Brenda is shy and mousy. Freda is the romantic, imagining how her life will turn out when she marries, while Brenda is the passive pragmatist (‘She felt it unwise to see things as other than they were’), trying to get on with life after separating from her husband. They unhappily share a bedsit, and a bed, with a line of books piled down the middle to demarcate sides.
At night when they prepared for bed Freda removed all her clothes and lay like a great fretful baby, majestically dimpled and curved. Brenda wore her pyjamas and her underwear and a tweed coat – that was the difference between them. Brenda said it was on account of nearly being frozen to death in Ramsbottom, but it wasn’t really that.
They also work together at the bottle factory and their experiences there are just as divisive. Brenda constantly wards off the attentions of manager Rossi, who gropes her on a daily basis but she is too polite to ask him to stop.
Though she lacked imagination, Brenda would go to any lengths rather than cause herself embarrassment. It was her upbringing. As a child she had been taught it was rude to say no, unless she didn’t mean it. If she was offered another piece of cake and she wanted it she was obliged to refuse out of politeness. And if she didn’t want it she had to say yes, even if it had choked her.
Freda meanwhile is in love with the good-looking Vittorio and it is for his benefit that she organises an outing for the factory workers, imagining a romantic seduction in the grounds of a stately home.
If she couldn’t walk through the perfumed gardens with Vittorio, the maybe…where Henry VIII had danced with Anne Boleyn she could find an equally lyrical setting for the beginning of their romance.
Preceding the trip, there are hints that the Outing is not going to end well. Freda drunkenly and unsuccessfully attempts to seduce Vittorio; Brenda’s mother-in-law confronts her with a gun and the imagery of funeral processions looms large. Bainbridge is clever in presenting this as an entertaining domestic comedy at first, using her exacting eye for detail to create a beautifully observed world, but there are hints of something darker on the horizon.
The Outing begins badly and ends worse, with events becoming more surreal as the book progresses. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it, but as the plot, tone and the humour darkens, Bainbridge explores how the dreams and hopes we have in life are stacked against a harsh reality and how life can be randomly cruel.
The violence and uncertainty of life have been there from the beginning, Bainbridge has simply lulled the reader into a false sense of security, only to show that she had told us what was coming all along. The book is a series of juxtapositions, between desire and expectation, imagination and reality and between who we imagine people to be and who they really are.
The characters of Brenda and Freda are perfectly drawn, Bainbridge has a real skill in characterisation and her emphasis on small details draws the reader into their world, realising them with humour and verve. She captures the often overwhelming closeness of female friendships and the pettiness that can grow between friends who both love and resent one another.
The Bottle Factory Outing is a wonderful, darkly comic novel – at once hilarious and horrific and well worth reading.
Read On: Book
20 Books of Summer: 2/20
Number Read: 120
Number Remaining: 626