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.
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.”