Beryl’s last road trip is flawed but weirdly triumphant

The novelist’s final book is laced with autobiography

THE GIRL IN THE POLKA DOT DRESS by Beryl Bainbridge. (Little, Brown, �16.99)

And so … after a wait of a decade, here at last is Dame Beryl Bainbridge’s final and posthumously published novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. She died last June when still – in her own words – just thirty days and thirty pages away from leaving the book just exactly as she wanted it to be. A few weeks ago I attended the bittersweet party held in a private club in Soho (perfect atmosphere except for the lack of fag smoke) to mark the bestowal of the ‘Man Booker Beryl’ – a unique award organised by the sponsors of the annual most prestigious prize for fiction, the result decided upon by her legions of loyal and loving fans. Five times she had been shortlisted for the Booker, and the poll was to determine which of these contenders had the greatest claim on the ultimate award. The winner was Master Georgie, set in the Crimean War – though my vote would have gone to The Bottle Factory Outing or An Awfully Big Adventure, as I always rather preferred her early very subtly written and usually extremely funny novels to the later historical ones, by means of which she reinvented herself and came to a far wider readership.

In this final novel, we have in a loose sense an amalgam of both these genres: the pivot of the narrative is an actual incident in history – the assassination of Bobby Kennedy – though the style and artistry is wholly rooted in her earlier style. The reason for this, I think, is that the story is heavily based upon a road trip across America that Beryl took in the 1960s with someone called Harold, whom she didn’t really know too well. In the novel, we have Rose, a rather monosyllabic and seemingly simple young woman originally from Southport, and latterly Kentish Town, engaged in a road trip across America with Harold, whom she doesn’t really know too well. They are both, for very disparate reasons, trying to track down the elusive Dr Wheeler, whom Rose still sees as the essential antidote to her own unloving father: “When I was a child I met a man who helped me into adulthood. He lifted the things that weighed me down”.

Beryl’s art is, as ever, difficult to penetrate and analyse, though so very easy to enjoy. Often, Rose’s thoughts and utterances are so artless as to be banal: ‘Outside it was still raining’. ‘He was wearing his trilby hat’. The cumulative effect, however, is strangely haunting. It never quite becomes clear if Rose is, as most Americans she encounters seem to assume ‘a retard’, or else really rather calculating, and privately amused. She is the eponymous girl in the polka dot dress, though it might spoil the uncoiling of the tale to say exactly why this is relevant. As to Harold, Beryl captures the nuance of American dialogue with unflashy skill (although someone paying the bill in a restaurant shouldn’t be picking up the ‘cheque’). Admirers of Beryl’s writing will know that the road trip unwinds very gradually, while all sorts of things are constantly occurring along the way, many of them frankly unlikely. We have robbery, guns, bigotry, rape, hatred, vengeance, a fire, unexplained severe injury and a couple of murders … though none of these is dwelt on for more than a page or so. It’s the sort of technique that really ought not to work at all, but in Beryl’s hands it is weirdly triumphant. And humour is there, of course – creeping up silently at an inappropriate moment, and tapping you on the shoulder.

The book is being touted as the author’s ‘final masterpiece’. Well – it is flawed, that is for sure, but maybe only because tragically, she simply ran out of time. Due to judicial editing – moving an opening flash-forward to the end - the novel does have a sort of closure, but with those yearned for thirty more days and thirty more pages … who knows what wonder she might have pulled out of the hat? I still miss Beryl, and enjoyed the fact that there was so much autobiography packed into Rose. And if you ever saw Beryl at a party – fag in hand and making straight for the Scotch – her heroine’s taste will thoroughly amuse you: ‘She wasn’t into wine; in her opinion it took too long to make one cheerful’.