Deliciously dark: Beryl Bainbridge’s ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’

beryl reading week

When I heard about the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week hosted by Annabel over at Annabel’s House of Books, I dusted down my copy of The Bottle Factory Outing that had been languishing in my TBR pile. I bought it a while ago as it’s on the Guardian’s 100 greatest novels list that Lucy and I are working our way through, and was glad of an excuse to dig it out.

The Bottle Factory Outing was my first Bainbridge novel and I didn’t really know what to expect. However, I found the keenly drawn characters, their dysfunctional relationships and Bainbridge’s juxtaposition of the dramatic and the mundane to be a marvel. The flatmates, Brenda and Freda are a wonderfully odd couple.

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.

Brenda is a masterwork in passivity while the cobalt-lidded Freda lives her life as though she’s starring in the movies.

Majestically Freda came out of the sweet-shop and strolled up the street. She was like a ballroom dancer moving in time to some slow waltz, pointing her feet delicately as she advanced, swaying from side to side in her purple cloak, one hand raised slightly with wrist arched, as if she dangled a fan.

Having introduced the characters – Freda, Brenda and the other exploited and underpaid workers at the bottle factory, Bainbridge ramped up the dramatic tension and dark comedy with the factory workers’ day out. The doomed trip started out with a string of hilarious mishaps – cancelled transport, uncertain arrangements, rising passions, tempers flaring, unwanted attentions, and all are amplified by the numerous barrels of wine.

As the events escalate, both plot and comedy darkened dramatically. When I thought I’d reached the dramatic climax,  the plot took an unexpected turn, and I realised the full fiendish comedy genius that is Bainbridge’s writing. I can’t wait to tuck into some more!