Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"The Dressmaker," by Beryl Bainbridge

“The Dressmaker” (Penguin, 1992, originally published by Duckworth 1973) is by Beryl Bainbridge (who died just two years ago at the age of 75), one of the quintessentially English writers who could never be mistaken for being from any other country. Her writing focuses on working class life, and there is usually a sense of psychological suspense, of strangeness, of unexpectedness in the midst of seeming ordinariness. “The Dressmaker” is no exception. It tells of a family in Liverpool during World War II. Although the family composition is unusual -- a young woman, Rita, who has been raised by her two aunts, with her widowed father nearby -- they seem to be very traditional, even straitlaced. Aunt Nellie is exceptionally conservative; Aunt Margo is a bit more open-minded, but generally doesn’t challenge Nellie. Father Jack loves his daughter but leaves the parental decisions to his two sisters, especially to Nellie. Rita, who has led a very sheltered life, meets and falls in love with an American soldier, Ira. He seems a bit passive and less than reliable, not to mention uncommunicative about his family or any personal details. The story moves slowly and the events seem unremarkable, although of interest because of the well-drawn characters and the depictions of wartime life. But -- as we might expect from Bainbridge -- there is a surprise ending building up and ready to shock us at the end of this brief novel. Once we read what happens, we look back and see all the portents that have been pointing the way to this ending. Despite -- or perhaps because of? -- the slight feeling of creepiness throughout the novel, this is an absorbing and satisfying read. [As a side note: the copy of this novel that I picked up at my local library used-book sale has a stamp inside showing that it was originally bought at the famed Shakespeare and Company Bookstore (established by Sylvia Beach) in Paris -- a delightful bonus discovery, linking the book to the tradition of that great bookstore (to which I made a pilgrimage when I was in Paris).]

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