1975 short list: Thomas Keneally, Gossip from the Forest, Collins

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I didn’t really enjoy Thomas Keneally’s Gossip from the Forest, but I did enjoy learning about this particular piece of history—the peace negotiations that brought World War I to a close–and having my perspective on it totally upended.

At great remove my own limited education on WWI, this novel, with its actual historical figures, was more difficult for me to follow than something like Derek Robinson’s Goshawk Squadron, which also drops the reader into the middle of WWI but which places her among fictional characters. I felt a pressure to know something about these real figures and felt a little embarrassed that I didn’t. When this happens (and it does happen more than I’d like), I often begin to read “too hard,” to try consciously to keep information in my head that I’m less worried about when the characters are inventions and I’m just getting a sense of the events of the times. When events are real, I read as though I’ll be tested on the material later, which distorts the experience for me.

I could feel the constraints of the history in this novel and feel Keneally working them in imagining the negotiations proper–as well as the character and motivations of those men carrying them out–through chapters that take up the individual characters’ perspectives and histories. In doing so, he complicates what it is I thought I knew about these events and how I feel about them. I always think about the two world wars together. With Hitler on the horizon, the idea that the Allies demanded absolute submission from Germany seems only right and sensible to me. But Keneally gives readers a less than flattering vision of the Allied demands, with the negotiators interested in manipulating the conditions to burnish their own reputations and shore up their positions of power and influence.

The primary negotiators include France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Foch’s Chief of Staff General Maxime Weygand, Britain’s Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss, German Secretary of State Matthias Erzberger, and Foreign Minister Count Alfred von Oberndorff.* Keneally, in giving us a sense of these individuals and their motivations, as other reviewers have noted, emphasizes the idea that history is not only made by, but is at the mercy of, self-interested human beings.** Keneally lets us see the Allies as bullies, whose demands are so extreme as to be inhumane. Our sympathies are with Erzberger, who, neither blinded by ambition nor politics and not unduly attached to specific conditions for particular branches of military, is there to do his best for a German people that will face starvation in great numbers if the Allies push through all of their conditions.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith suggested Keneally’s interest in racial and class politics, in the ways in which those with less power are victimized by those with more, and class issues are at the heart of Gossip from the Forest as well. Erzberger himself comes from provincial peasant stock, and Keneally makes much of his background, portraying him as someone who has experienced considerable condescension and snobbery in rising through the ranks of government bureaucracy. In his current position, Erzberger finds himself caught between frightened and incompetent aristocrats and a Bolshevik movement that will mean the imminent abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm and a restructuring of the German government. And while we might want to cheer Germany’s reinvention as a republic (at least in the abstract and without the benefit of hindsight), the timing of this revolution is inopportune–jeopardizing efforts to end a war that has devolved to chaos and the slaughter of the rank and file. Whether Erzberger will even be able to negotiate the peace before his authority to do so expires with the Kaiser’s removal is one of the key questions that drives the plot.

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While the Allied military representatives*** use the conditions of the armistice to jockey for position, seeking to shore up their separate national and divisional fiefdoms and reputations, Keneally portrays Erzberger as a true public servant, concerned for himself and his own power only insofar as it allows him to broker a peace that will end the slaughter and forestall further human hardship. He is a good man, doing what he can to influence events humanely.

Keneally certainly doesn’t argue that Germany was right in its conduct of the war, but he does imply that the Allied efforts to “destroy” the enemy went too far. And were Erzberger a character in a novel not chained to a specific history, he might be allowed a measure of triumph. Here, however, facts won’t allow it–which has its impact on the reader rooting for Erzberger. No matter how valiant and right-minded he is, Erzberger would ultimately only be able to get the number of decommissioned submarines changed in the documents since the figure listed was larger than the actual number of subs in the German navy. In no position to win concessions from the victors, he could only accede to their demands quickly and, upon his return to Berlin, do his best to mitigate the damage that continuing blockades would create.

For more on the actual history, click here. Information on the fate of the railroad car in which the negotiations were carried out in the forest of Compiègne, France suggests the ramifications of these negotiations on the national psyches of France and Germany. (See “The Armistice Carriage.”)

*Other personnel include British Rear Admiral George Hope, British Royal Navy Captain John Marriott, German Army General Detlof von Winterfeldt, and German Navy Captain Ernst Vanselow.

**Wikipedia quotes a couple of reviews:

According to the New York Times Book Review’s Paul Fussell, Gossip from the Forest “is a study of the profoundly civilian and pacific sensibility beleaguered by crude power…. it is absorbing, and as history it achieves the kind of significance earned only by sympathy acting on deep knowledge.”

Robert E. McDowell in World Literature Today concluded that “with Gossip from the Forest Keneally has succeeded better than in any of his previous books in lighting the lives of historical figures and in convincing us that people are really the events of history.” (from a Keneally biography).
Perry Middlemiss quotes other reviews:

Thomas Keneally’s Gossip from the Forest belongs with . . . Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914, [both] books that delineate the past in sympathetic depth and so urge the reader to enter it.-New York Times Book Review

Bravura has been the breath of life to Thomas Keneally. In this book he sets himself, with his usual passionate exuberance, to study the conjunction of men who met in the railway coaches in the forest of Compiègne to sign the 1918 Armistice. – Anne Duchêne, Times Literary Supplement

The novel is technically a tour-de-force, entirely gripping and . . . very moving. – C.J. Driver, Guardian

With the sweeping perception most historians miss he’s worked history, speculation, rumour into the cunningest of documentaries. All in all, an extremely gripping, as well as important historical fiction. – Valerie Cunningham, New Statesman

Mr. Keneally has intricate mastery over the matters of fact, but it is the heat of his imagination that astonishes. Dreams, spasms of feeling, lightning analyses of life-long characteristics are merged with history’s fixed assertions, and seem at least as valid in this totally assured book. – Mary Sullivan, Sunday Telegraph
***The Allies had no civilians on their negotiating team.

1974

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1974

Weather emergencies and natural disasters. Global recession. Escalating oil prices. It must be . . .1974.

This was the year the world population hit 4 billion and the global recession intensified, with energy costs wreaking havoc and creating inflationary spirals in most Western economies (e.g., inflation hit 11.3% in the US and 17.2% in the UK). In the United States, both the 55-mph speed limit and the early imposition of daylight savings time were an immediate response to the ongoing energy crisis. Weather emergencies created their own turmoil.

Droughts caused widespread famine in Africa, the largest series of tornadoes in history struck the United States and Canada, and, on Christmas day, Cyclone Tracy nearly wiped out Darwin, Australia. India detonated its first nuclear weapon and suffered a smallpox epidemic that killed between 10,000 and 20,000 people. Turkey invaded Cyprus; the IRA bombed the Tower of London; Evita Peron succeeded her husband Juan as president of Argentina; and Antonio de Spinola led a bloodless military coup in Portugal. US President Richard Nixon resigned in the wake of the Watergate scandal and was later pardoned by Gerald Ford.

1974

On a less somber note, Lucy, a 3-million-year-old hominid skeleton, was discovered in Ethiopia. Chicago’s Sears Tower became the world’s tallest building. The Sting,Godfather II, Blazing Saddles, and The Exorcist played in theatres. Dolly Parton, ABBA, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, and Stevie Wonder sold a lot of albums, and Paul McCartney and Wings recorded Band on the Run. The first word processors came into use, and the first UPC barcode scanner was installed in a supermarket in Ohio.

Short list:

Kingsley Amis, Ending Up—a black comedy involving five elderly housemates, who squabble and kvetch their days away in a country cottage.

Beryl Bainbridge, The Bottle Factory Outing¬—a grim farce in which two single Englishwomen arrange an outing for their fellow workers at an Italian-run wine bottling factory.

C.P. Snow, In Their Wisdom—a portrait of 1970s English society through its legal and political system—on display in a contested inheritance case and in the workings of the House of Lords.

Co-winner: Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist—an intense critique of South African apartheid, largely told from the insular point of view of a successful Johannesburg businessman.

Co-winner: Stanley Middleton, Holiday—a meditation on love and relationships as an education professor who has separated from his wife contemplates his past and his future during an English seaside holiday.

Judges:

Ion Trewin (Chair)
A.S. Byatt
Elizabeth Jane Howard

I thought 1974 was a strange year for the Bookers: only five novels on the short list and two winners—though the winners did seem to be the class of the field. I found both the Amis and Bainbridge novels somewhat odd (with degrees of black comedy), and the Snow plodding. I usually like a good black comedy, but both Ending Up and The Bottle Factory Outing puzzled me. While I thought Bainbridge’s novel was well put together, it had a sadness that overmatched its humor for me. The Amis novel did not earn its ending in my view.* I don’t think anyone not married to Kingsley Amis would have fought me on the prize-worthiness of Ending Up. And as I argued in an individual review, In Their Wisdom felt much longer than 345 pages and featured some odd choices in characterization. (I say this as a lover of nineteenth-century fiction, by the way. Vanity Fair? Middlemarch? Bleak House? Long dogs all. Love ‘em.)

Then we add the controversy: Apparently, Elizabeth Jane Howard, who was married to Kingsley Amis at the time, insisted that his novel be short-listed. I’ll let judge Ion Trewin take it from here:

I looked first at Antonia, and then at Martyn Goff, the prize’s administrator – both remained impassive. We broke for a breather. Martyn said that as chairman it was up to me. Antonia liked the novel (as did I). On literary grounds neither of us had problems about shortlisting it, but what would the press say?

The Booker was already familiar with controversies. Martyn, I know, was not averse to the publicity that our decision would inevitably bring. (This was to centre around a vituperative correspondence in the Times.) But would the burgeoning reputation of the prize be damaged? He thought not. More important was our choice of winner. Antonia and I spoke up for Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, but Jane was less impressed. She remained keen on Ending Up, but realising that neither Antonia nor I would countenance it winning, she concentrated on Stanley Middleton’s Holiday, a study of middle England that she saw as a “perfect miniature.”

With only three judges, it seemed important to me that we did not compromise or produce a two-one verdict. Might we split the prize between Middleton and Gordimer? Martyn said he knew of no reason why not. We were vindicated by The Conservationist being selected this year for the Best of the Booker shortlist. (“Tears, Tiffs, and Triumphs”)

Maybe so, but I would have gone for Holiday, Best of the Booker or no Best of the Booker.**

The Guardian’s Sam Jordison is with me on this one, saying that he, too, would have“plumped for” Middleton’s novel, which dives deep into the consciousness of decidedly ordinary middle-class protagonist Edwin Fisher. While he admires The Conservationist, Jordison describes it as “a book that demands respect, but is hard to love”—a writer’s more than a reader’s novel.

The Conservationist is, as I hope I’ve made clear in my individual review of the novel, fierce and challenging in subject and style. Its protagonist, Mehring, both solipsistic and safe in a white privilege he never questions, becomes increasingly hard to stomach—which was undoubtedly part of Gordimer’s design. But her characterization of Mehring necessarily keeps the reader at a distance and, combined with the other stylistic experiments she undertakes, makes for a difficult reading experience. Again, this is not something I’m against. I like plenty of modern and postmodern fiction. Further, I don’t mind fighting my way through a book that is worth the fight—and I would put this novel in that category.

Yet I preferred Middleton’s novel, which is by no means simple, even if it is more reader-friendly. In exploring Fisher’s consciousness, Middleton (not unlike Gordimer) moves back and forth through time, gradually building our understanding of the man, his marriage, and the dilemma he finds himself in. In the process, the character’s sense of grievance and what’s right give way. The novel gathers power quietly, as Fisher fumbles his way through his holiday, sifting his own experience and seeking a way forward.

I do have to say that Trewin’s account of the judging made me feel a little sheepish about siding in this decision with Howard, who clearly only gave up on Amis’s book when she realized she wouldn’t win that battle. I can’t help but find something a little perverse about her refusal to defer to the other two judges and make the vote for Gordimer unanimous, but I’m still glad that Middleton got his prize. Holiday is an exceptionally well-wrought novel—complex, deeply felt, and quietly powerful. As Jordison says, it deserves the readership that winning the Booker has helped insure for it.

As ever, head over to Dooney’s Cafe and check out Jean Baird’s evaluation of 1974, which includes her take on the impact of “prize culture” on Canadian publishing.

*I’m open to the idea that I’m just too American to get really black British humor, though, frankly that old “British humor” argument mostly just annoys me. Hmmm. Maybe I’m not so open to that idea after all. Never mind.

**Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) ultimately won the Best of the Bookers prize from a short list that included The Conservationist (1974), Pat Barker’sThe Ghost Road (1995), J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), Peter Carey’sOscar and Lucinda (1988), and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999). I’d have gone withDisgrace, but that’s another post for another day

Nadine Gordimer, The Conservationist

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The Conservationist

In an essay on Nadine Gordimer’s life and career, Per Wästberg calls The Conservationist “a kind of sequel to the first classic of South African literature, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm (1883)” (“Nadine Gordimer and the South African Experience”). That characterization is a useful way to position the book and to think about the politics at its center. While Schreiner situates her story (and her farm) in the vast semi-desert Karoo, which German, Boer, and English settlers have colonized and in which they scramble to make a living, Gordimer situates hers commuting distance from Johannesburg and makes the farm a weekend retreat for Mehring, an already successful South African industrialist (described repeatedly as “not just any pig iron dealer”).

Where Schreiner‘s three young white protagonists operate within a pioneering colonial context, struggling against provincial customs and ideas that limit their opportunities for self-realization, here, the politics of apartheid spawned by the country’s colonial past are played out in the lives of both white and Zulu characters—with the death of one unidentified Zulu man opening the story on a tragic note.

Mehring leaves it to the local police to solve the mystery of the man’s identity and dispose of the body, but they do nothing beyond giving it a hasty burial on his property. The need, then, to identify and properly bury this man, clearly a victim of violence, nags at the narrative. It resonates thematically and is, in its way, the single plot element on which progress can be said to be made. The presence of the body on his property also nags at Mehring, who identifies (ironically) with this mysterious misplaced corpse, particularly in the wake of its reappearance above ground after fires and floods ravage the property in the course of the novel.

Mehring, of course, is no farmer, though he takes every chance he can to get away to the farm, reveling in the land’s beauty and his own romantic connection to it. He is frequently shown spending hours lying on his back in the veld (a practice that reinforces his connection to the corpse and recalls–also ironically–Schreiner’s young philosophical Waldo), even as he insists that his Zulu farmhands make the farm productive.

While Gordimer does provide insight into the Zulu community that lives in and around the farm,* we’re mostly stuck with Mehring’s point of view—which is designed to make us uncomfortable. Mehring leads a privileged but largely sterile and lonely existence. On one of his frequent hikes around the farm, he states (in rhythm with his own motion), “My—possessions—are—enough—for—me.” This solipsistic statement gets repeated throughout the novel, revealing Mehring’s satisfaction with the status quo and his own privileged place in it. It also resonates when the people closest to him and with whom he most frequently interacts evade his desire to control them. This group includes his Zulu farmhands, his son, and the women in his life.

The Conservationist

Mehring spends little time thinking about his ex-wife, who has moved to New York, but he seems absolutely preoccupied with his “gypsy,” the married academic/activist with whom he had an affair. Intent on seducing and proving his power over her, particularly because of her anti-apartheid political views, he initially purchases the farm to impress her, to use it as a place they might meet for their trysts. Yet she never returns after their first trip to see the property. In fact, Mehring ends up having to use his wealth and connections to help his lover leave South Africa when her husband’s political activism threatens to land the two in jail.**

Mehring also finds himself baffled and thwarted by his son, Terry, who travels during his school holidays to tribal areas in the newly christened Zamibia rather than spend time with his father. Anti-apartheid (and possibly gay), Terry visits his father only to elicit from him a promise to pay his way to New York so he might avoid military service. During his brief visit to the farm, he spends much of his time with the Zulu farmhands.

What little sympathy we might muster for a lonely and “abandoned” Mehring is undercut by his overall satisfaction with the way things are and his refusal to see beyond his own self-interest. As he drives his Mercedes past scenes and landscapes of poverty and industrial waste again and again on the route between his farm and the city, his primary concerns are the traffic and road conditions. While he grows increasingly uneasy that troubles from a notorious nearby slum may some day reach his own property, he ultimately believes himself to be a benevolent and enlightened boss—much better than the brutish Boer neighbors. He thinks he provides his farmhands with plenty, though they clearly have little. His main concern is not to be duped by them into hiring more workers or taking on more expense than is necessary. Mehring finally believes in the bottom line. Despite his romance with the land, he believes it must pay.

Only in the end does Mehring’s faith in his own power and position falter. When he finds himself physically confronted with racial and class tensions from which he has heretofore felt protected by a fully institutionalized (and internalized) system of white privilege, he realizes the increasing instability of that system and his own place in it.

Like Schreiner before her, Gordimer experiments with form in this novel, in this case interrupting her narrative with pieces of Zulu myth and folk wisdom and embracing a stream-of-consciousness style that foregoes transitions and makes much use of repeated phrases and imagery. Mehring’s thoughts move from present to past, from his son to his former mistress to other concerns and events without warning, making his story itself difficult to follow but giving it a poetic feel as well.

I’m not really sure how I ultimately feel about the novel. I can’t say that I actually enjoyed it. The style intensified the main character’s self-interest and solipsism as an indictment of the system he represents, and the result was a little off-putting. Even if this was Gordimer’s design, it was just a little too bloodless for me. Yet I did admire the style, as dense as I found it, and thought that Gordimer brought the novel round to a satisfactory, if subdued, conclusion. I felt not quite angry but a little empty at the end, despite my knowledge that the system that here seemed to be rotting from inside and out would, in twenty years, be dismantled more peacefully than this story might have forecast.

I’m glad I read the novel, and I can see why it was a co-winner, but I don’t know that I would have voted for it.

*We also get insight into the lives of neighboring Boer farmers, Indian general store owners, members of Johannesburg’s white social elite, and anti-apartheid activists.

**Further, if Mehring’s relationship with his gypsy suggested a tenderness or a sympathy with more populist politics and ideas as well as a commitment to a woman who is more or less his equal, his anonymous sexual encounter with a young woman on a plane and his creepy infatuation and flirtation with the teen-aged daughter of an industrialist with whose family he has long socialized negate that view.

C.P. Snow, In Their Wisdom

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C.P. Snow, In Their Wisdom

Snow’s novel puzzled me. It was only 345 pages long, but it felt like a much longer novel. Perhaps because it dealt with the conduct of a legal case—a challenge to an inheritance and a later appeal—as well as a fairly large cast of characters with intersecting fates, I was thinking of Dickens and Bleak House early on. Indeed, as I discovered after having finished, the publishers were pushing this very comparison, citing that novel in the dust jacket copy, and suggesting that Snow, like Dickens, “use[d] the processes of law to create the image of the whole society.”

This isn’t false advertising. Starting with Mrs. Underwood, who cared for the now deceased Mr. Massie in his final years, and her layabout son Julian, who is the chief beneficiary of the old man’s will, the legal proceedings come to involve Mr. Massie’s estranged daughter, Jenny Rastall; her wealthy employer, Mr. Reginald Swaffield; Julian’s girlfriend, Liz Fox-Milnes; lawyers and solicitors on either side; Liz’s father, Lord Hillmorton; several other members of the House of Lords with whom Lord Hillmorton is friendly (particularly historian and successful businessman James Ryle and scientist Adam Sedgwick); and, finally, physician Archibald Pemberton, the distant male heir who will take over Lord H’s seat on his demise.

C.P. Snow, In Their Wisdom
Set in 1970s London, the novel deals both specifically and broadly with issues of inheritance and primogeniture, examining them from legal, scientific, and social perspectives. While much of the novel’s action takes place among the Lords, the characters occupy a wide variety of positions on the social spectrum. Alongside the wealthy old men we would expect in the upper chamber, we see younger and more ambitious doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. There are less ambitious men as well–like Swaffield’s “pet” Lord Clare, and the poverty stricken Lord Lorimer, who depends on the chamber’s daily stipend to support himself.

The novel’s women, from whose point of view we see much of the action, are themselves at the mercy of a system stacked against them, one that both rewards and may be manipulated by the wealthy and the unscrupulous. Both Jenny and Liz are intelligent, capable, and, in Jenny’s case, compassionate women whom the law literally disinherits. Both single, they also find themselves in relationships that the novel’s narrator directly informs the reader are in important ways beneath them—though Jenny’s partner is considerably less repellent than Liz’s.

Events of the novel unfold against larger events—legislation on industrial relations and education policy, general economic uncertainty, and England’s place in the European Community Parliament has voted to join. The novel describes a legal system—including the government—that is somehow out of step with the times, both for good and ill. Its set pieces–a large elaborate party thrown by self-made millionaire Reg Swaffield and a surgical operation performed to alleviate Sedgwick’s Parkinson’s disease–encapsulate the times with inquiries into the contemporary politics of class and wealth and scientific and medical advances.

Such a seemingly self-conscious Dickensian effort necessitates a novel of some length, and I don’t object to that. But, as I said above, this novel feels longer than it actually is. (And let’s face it–345 pages is like a detailed outline of a Dickens novel.) Despite the well-conceived and in many ways compelling legal case at its center, the novel is slow and ponderous. I felt like it couldn’t get going—even as it was going. Perhaps this was intentional—Snow’s tribute to the interminable Jarndyce v. Jarndyce at the center of Bleak House.

But it just felt out of whack. Even as I came to know the characters, I felt distant from them. Some were introduced at odd times or suddenly became prominent. Others, who seemed as if they would loom large in the story, didn’t. While Jenny and Liz got enough coverage, they still behaved in ways that seemed out of keeping with at least part of their characterization. Aware of their romantic and financial difficulties, I still found some of their choices frustrating and odd. I thought Julian made a nice Dickensian scoundrel, but many of the other characters seemed as though they couldn’t quite find their place here. Plus there was a casual homophobia that I couldn’t help but find off-putting.

At least Dickens had the pressures and demands of serial publication to explain the increased and decreased prominence of certain characters and plotlines in his novels. I can’t imagine that Snow labored under these same constraints.

In Their Wisdom does ultimately give us a vision of the society, but it made it tough to care about that society. Maybe that was Snow’s intention. Certainly the novel’s final paragraphs hint at a longer and only partly charitable perspective:

It occurred to [Ryle] to wonder, how would a historian of the future, a historian of his own type, judge the society he had lived in and the people in it. It was possible, it was more than possible, that historians of the future wouldn’t be much fascinated. It might seem a period of confusion between great epochs, and those didn’t shine very bright in history. But if they did give us any attention, it was certain that they would analyse our discontents, anxieties, the forces moving us, even our attempts at foresight and our hopes, quite differently from the way we had tried ourselves. And they would be right, or more right than we had been. If there was a lesson a historian learned, that was it.

But there was another lesson a historian learned. They will also read our feelings and our experience quite differently from the way we lived them. The present couldn’t imagine the ideas of the future, that is one of the certainties. It seemed equally certain, from what Ryle knew of history, that the future couldn’t live again the existence of any present. For what it is worth, that is our own. We didn’t know much, but that was something only we could know.

A consolation? No, it just put us into perspective in the whole chain of lives, and that was humbling. Not that anyone should require humbling, Ryle thought, if he had lived in our time. (345)

Beryl Bainbridge, The Bottle Factory Outing

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The-Bottle-Factory-Outing

I don’t know what’s up with the judges this year, but I got the same weird vibe from Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing that I got from Amis’s Ending Up. The jacket copy describes this novel as “very funny,” and more precisely as a black comedy. While I understand the impulse to apply these labels, I’m not feeling it.

This novel bears a resemblance to the previous year’s short-listed Bainbridge novel,The Dressmaker. Both that novel and this feature lonely women leading diminished lives with one (or two in the earlier novel) dreaming of a grander, more joyful existence and the other resigned to her rather dismal present. In this novel, Freda, a big, bold young woman with grandiose and romantic notions of her future, shares a bedsit with the subdued and downtrodden Brenda, who has fled the countryside and an unhappy marriage to a hard-drinking farmer with a meddlesome mother.

The-Bottle-Factory-Outing

Freda has found Brenda and herself jobs at a nearby wine bottling factory in London, where they work with Italian immigrants who have been with the owner, Mr. Paganotti, for a generation. The workers themselves have formed an insular community, retaining their language and customs despite their long residence in England. The two English women have become something akin to celebrities in the factory, admired by their fellow workers and management alike—apparently for being English and women. The plant manager, Mr. Rossi, keeps trying to maneuver the reluctant Brenda into compromising positions, while Vittorio, the owner’s nephew somewhat more obliquely encourages Freda to pursue a romance with him. The novel opens with plans for a pleasure outing that Freda has arranged for everyone at the factory to visit “a Stately Home,” where they will “stroll through Elizabethan Gardens,” and she will get her relationship with Vittorio off the ground.

The novel maintains a note of sad inevitability from the start. We might hope that the romantic pairings hinted at will flower during the outing, but the main characters’ psychologies foretell a grimmer outcome. Brenda’s efforts to both elude and cajole not just the handsy Mr. Rossi but also Patrick, the Irish van driver whom she may or may not fancy, are grounded in childhood lessons: Brenda was taught early on to acquiesce in things she didn’t want to do and resist those she did. Freda’s efforts to seduce Vittorio prior to and at the actual outing present a different if more understandable delusion in which she envisions herself beloved and idolized, living a life of luxury and romance in the Mediterranean. Dysfunction and desperation, then, ground the outlandish and darkly comic events that occur before, during, and after the outing in ways that drain away much of their humor.

This despite some nicely managed comic elements. Character biography and characterization do make the machinery of the plot apparent, encouraging us to take things lightly, I suppose. Language barriers and other sorts of culture clashes create both miscommunication and secrets that help drive things along. We even get a kind of “chorus” of black-suited Italian workers whose mystification at their oddly unfolding holiday put the principals’ adventures in relief. But the novel just feels grim. We keep waiting for a turn that never arrives, driving toward an ending that makes a kind of grotesque sense but cannot finally satisfy.

The Bottle Factory Outing is an odd novel in what is shaping up to be an odd year for the short list.

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