Like many other authors, Beryl Bainbridge drew on the experiences of her own life for the events, themes and settings of her novels. She once claimed she had never really written fiction because all her books were depictions of events that she herself had witnessed or experienced. For her, real life was more peculiar and riveting than anything she could have imagined or created. Though many of her later novels were in the historical fiction genre, she never completely abandoned the re-working of some incident from her past.
In Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, her eighteenth and final novel, she recreates a journey across America that she made in 1968. It was a turbulent period in American history: the country was at war with Vietnam, J F Kennedy had been assassinated and Martin Luther King murdered. Racial tension manifested itself in riots in many parts of the country.
It’s against this background that Bainbridge sends her two central characters on a quest across the country. Rose, a 30-year-old girl with an unhappy childhood, arrives in America in search of a man who befriended her many years ago but has since disappeared. Her host is Washington Harold, a bearded pedantic man in his fifties whom she barely knows. Harold also wants to find Wheeler. The two join forces to travel from Washington to Los Angeles, from Maryland to California, sleeping in a battered camper van or in the spare rooms of Harold’s odd assortment of acquaintances. But whenever they arrive, it’s to find that Wheeler has just left.
Quite who Wheeler is, remains unclear throughout the book though we get hints that he might be something in the secret service and is involved in Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Equally elliptical are the reasons why the two unlikely travelling companions seem so intent on tracking him down. The answers and the backgrounds of these individuals are disclosed in fragmentary fashion, almost as if they are dropped accidentally into the narrative. So subtle is this technique, that often the significance of what I’d just read only became apparent a few pages later. It’s an approach that is characteristic of Bainbridge’s style it seems. In an obituary written by Janet Watts at The Guardian, she comments that:
Beryl’s literary fiction can have a quality of a detective story: only when we reach a novel’s final denouement do we see that we were given the key to its coded mystery at the start.
Unfortunately the resolution never materialises in this novel because Bainbridge died before it was completed. She left detailed instructions for her friend and editor, Brendan King, on how to prepare the text for publication from her working manuscript, the concluding chapters were not fleshed out sufficiently for him to do more than give a summary type of ending. Which for me was such a let down because Bainbridge had created in Rose, one of those characters who stay in the memory and I wanted to follow her story through to more of an ending.
Rose is rather childlike; more interested in chewing her fingernails and smoking than the sights of America that flash by the windows of the camper van. When Harold repeatedly fails in his attempts to engage her interest, he concludes that she is ‘a retard’. For Rose, the country is simply “a confusion of flyovers, underpasses, intersections, junctions, toll gates….. Sometimes there were fields full of cows, once a river, brown and swollen, once a town with a railway track running down the middle of its street.” Though the scenery is dull and she doesn’t comprehend most of what she hears, she feels at home amongst Harold’s group of beatnik, depressive friends. The novel’s final sentence is fittingly engimatic for this mercurial character : “A star of blood, delicate as a snowflake, melted upon her upper lip.”