……….Beryl Bainbridge’s Bottle Factory Outing is a book about a chalk-and-cheese-couple, who reminded me of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the film of Neil Simon’s play “The Odd Couple” – complete opposites living a ‘can’t live with you but can’t live without you either!’ kind of existence, which is farcical and funny, but with Beryl Bainbridge there is a much more acidic, sharper, and very, very, bitter taste to the comedy – this is the sort of comedy that’s just as likely to make you wince and grimace as it is to make you smile and laugh!
It’s been about three weeks since I finished Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing as part of the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, hosted by Annabel at Gaskella. In that time I’ve read and reviewed other books. But I’ve been putting off writing a review of this book because I just didn’t know what to make of it. It’s an odd book, and as I mentioned before, it’s about a very odd couple!
Brenda and Freda are friends (sort of!), flatmates, and work colleagues at the bottling factory where they both work on the production line. Both have had their ups and downs, and to be honest, if you’d kept a score throughout their lives, probably a lot more downs than ups!! The story sees them preparing for and then going on a works outing which they are organising, partly to add a little change and colour to their fairly drab lives and partly because Freda has an ulterior motive – to get her hands on Vittorio, the relative of the factory owner and the most desirable of the many Italian immigrants working in the factory. Much of Brenda and Freda’s lives revolve around the everyday and their work at the factory, owned by the almost mysterious Mr Paganotti, who is mentioned throughout the book but never actually appears. There’s a host of strong Italian support characters, mostly from the factory, such as the unusual and amorous Mr Rossi, with a slightly eccentric Irishman chucked in for good measure!
However, it’s the relationship between Freda and Brenda that is the heart and soul of the book. But I hesitate to call it a friendship – it reads and feels more like a kind of social and emotional marriage of convenience than a friendship. And from the outset, the odd feel to the book is rooted in this slightly bizarre pair. Their first meeting is odd – Freda virtually force-feeding Brenda into being adopted/taken under Freda’s wing(not a terribly cosy or safe place to be!!), after a chance encounter in a shop as Brenda flees from a disastrous marriage, a seriously mad mother-in-law and a husband who is the village ‘soak’ essentially! The oddness is maintained in their everyday lives – for example, separated at night in the bed they share by a bolster of books of all things!
The first part of the book sets up the story and while mildly amusing in several places it’s a gentler kind of comedy here. It’s at the factory outing where the story really takes off into a whole new level of odd and where it really does become the blackest of black comedies! From this point on I’ll say nothing more about the story for fear of spoiling it but suffice to say it’s full of twists, blind alleys and an eventual denouement which is both hilarious and tragic at the same time! I laughed at it – but I’m ashamed to admit that I laughed at it!
So if it was hilarious, why wait so long pondering what to make of it before I came to review it?
I think the answer lies in the “black” part of black comedy – I found this to be so sharp, so acutely observed and so raw in places that it was almost uncomfortable to read. The tensions between Freda and Brenda or between them and the other characters are painful to observe in places – you almost feel embarrassed – it’s a bit like when you see a couple rowing in public and you want the ground to open up and swallow you even though you don’t even know them!
The few Beryl Bainbridge books I’ve read are all slightly quirky and odd – populated with characters who, if they were flat shapes would be all corners and sharp edges rather than smooth and curved! This is no exception. And yet, on reflection I did enjoy it – and I judge that partly on the basis that I laughed out loud several times when I was reading this book! (that in itself was an uncomfortable feeling though as I read this book on the dreaded, evil, Kindle, while walking the dog in the park – the looks from other dog-walkers and park -users at the man with the dog suddenly breaking out into laughter will forever be in my memory and associated with this book!).
Another feature of the other Beryl Bainbridge books I’ve read is that you get plenty of ‘bangs for your bucks’ with her. This was a short and very easy to read novel – and yet it’s got comedy, farce, horror, violence, love, poverty, royalty, and much more, all packed into it! You can’t do anything but like the way she writes and the characters she draws, who don’t just leap off the page at you but who also grab you by the throat and pin you down until you submit!
Overall – the book is odd – it’s about an odd couple in an odd relationship living in odd circumstances. It’s a book that is quirky odd, cruelly odd, viciously odd, uncomfortably odd, and blackly odd, but overall it’s really hilariously, terrifically, odd! And on that contradiction in terms, I’ll finish!!!!
I read this having been encouraged / inspired by Beryl Bainbridge Reading week. I know a number of others read and reviewed both The Bottle Factory Outing and most of the other Beryl Bainbridge novels and short stories and there’s a summary page at Annabel’s blog Gaskella, listing all of them if you’d like to read more about the Bottle Factory Outing or other Beryl Bainbridge novels!