Beryl Bainbridge made it to the Man Booker prize shortlist a record five times but never succeeded in winning the award. The Bottle Factory Outing, her fourth novel was one of the shortlisted titles in 1974 but was beaten to the prize by Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.
Bainbridge’s story is set somewhere in London in a small Italian-run factory which bottles wines and some spirits. Freda and Brenda are two members of the workforce , working alongside some middle aged Italians who clean and label the bottles for despatch. The pair share a workbench by day and a miserable bedsit room by night. They also share a bed though they build a wall of books to ensure there is a clear demarkation of space on the mattress.
They are an unlikely pair of women to hitch up together. They have little in common either in their backgrounds or their attitudes to life.
Freda is one of those people who seem born with a bigger pair of lungs than the average human being. Loud and fearless, she has aspirations to be an actress or, failing that, to marry someone rich. Brenda is her complete opposite, dark haired and completely passive, the kind of girl that will never say no to anyone in case they are offended. Her one moment of bravery it seems was to leave her husband, a drunkard much prone to urinating on the doorstep of their home in the north of England and to set up alone in London.
Freda is a girl with dreams. She comes up with a plan for the entire team to take off for a day out in country. It will, she hopes, give her the opportunity to capture the heart of the manager, Vittorio. Brenda has more pressing concerns – how to avoid the amorous intentions of her fellow worker, the lecherous Rossi.
Their day of freedom fails to live up to all their expectations. It’s starts with the non appearance of the van they’d booked as transport and gets steadily worse because instead of a wine-fuelled picnic in the grounds of a stately home, they have to enjoy their repast on a patch of grass near the road. It all ends in in tragedy.
The Bottle Factory Outing is a novel inspired by Bainbridge’s own experience of working in a bottling plant. At times offbeat, the humour is mingled with moments of poignancy particularly in the final scenes as the workers gather at a bizarre party in the factory attic.
The front cover blurb says Grahame Greene considered The Bottle Factory Outing to be ‘outrageously funny and horrifying.’ Funny yes with some scenes that are pure farce but I couldn’t find anything remotely ‘horrifying’ within these pages. It struck me rather as a story that ripples with pathos. All the workers in this factory have dreams that sustain them through their mundane lives; they long for something to relieve that monotony but ultimately those wishes and desires come to nothing.
I enjoyed Bainbridge’s economic style of writing and warmed to these two women but the novel ultimately failed to live up to its promise. The black humour and the poignancy ultimately became as unlikely a pairing as Freda and Brenda.
What are you currently reading?
The Line of Beauty by Alun Hollinghurst
This was the book that won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 and is one of the few books remaining for me to read in my Booker Prize project. Almost a year ago I asked you all which of the winners still outstanding you would would recommend. The Line of Beauty came in as joint first with The True History of the Kelly Gang. Some of you described Hollinghurst’s book as very readable.
I have to say that so far I am finding it rather dull. It’s meant to be about class, politics and sexuality in 1980s Britain but so far there is a noticeable absence of the political dimension. Class does make an appearance but overwhelmingly the first 100 pages or so have been about sex. Our protagonist Nick Fadden is a middle class Oxford graduand who is lodging with an MP and his family. Nick feels very much the outsider in their midst but the book’s main tension revolves around his homosexual desires and his relationships with two men. My reaction to the book isn’t connected to prudish sensitivities on my part but just that so far this is all the book is about and its highly repetitive. Can someone please assure me that the next 400 pages will be rather more interesting?
What did you recently finish reading?
The Latecomers by Anita Brookner
Few authors can get into the skin of the “outsider” as well as Brookner. The Latecomers features two delightfully conceived men of this ilk: Thomas Hartmann and his friend Thomas Fibich. The men are both Jewish and sent to London as refugees in the war. They go into business together and, once married, have apartments in the same building. We follow them from their youth, into marriage with women who seem to reflect their idiosyncratic traits and the puzzling world of fatherhood. It may not be Brookner’s strongest novel but still highly engaging.
What do you think you’ll read next?
Shall I continue on my Booker trail with How Late it Was How Late by James Kelman?
It may be however that by the time I’m finished with Hollinghurst one of the Booker 2018 longlisted titles will have come through from the library.
I’m not planning to read all the longlist since some of them hold no appeal for me but I would like to read two or three if possible before the shortlist is announced.
What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?
There was a time not so many years ago that the announcement of the long list for the Man Booker Prize would have me heading straight to the library.
How things change. I’m still interested in the prize but not to the same extent. It’s not the fact that the rules changed to allow American authors but that it meant there were fewer authors from other countries on the list. It became less international.
This year I forgot that today would see the long list for the 2018 prize released. It was only that I happened to be in a bookshop and overheard a customer asking the shop owner for his reactions to the list, that my memory was jogged.
There are a few positives about this year’s list:
- Four debut novels
- Good mixture of genres with the first ever graphic novel to be long listed. Plus a crime novel. This latter isn’t the first time we’ve had a crime novel on the list but it doesn’t happen often. I have to believe that it reflects the influence of Val McDermid who is a judge this year.
- Continued presence of independent presses. These publishers deserve the help that inclusion on prize lists can bring because they so often take a punt where the larger companies play safe.
- Two authors from Wales are included. We’ve had a Welsh author before who actually won the prize (Bernice Rubens in 1970 with The Elected Member) but never two on the same list. Ok the purists among you might say there is only one since unlike Sophie Mackintosh, Belinda Bauer was not born in Wales (in fact the Booker website describes her as English) but she worked in Wales and lives there. Cause for further celebration is that Bauer who is long listed for Snap, lives in my neighbourhood and I see her in our local library. Now that should surely count for a few votes?
Despite that reflection of diversity I’m sad to see that the international flavour of the prize has diminished even further. In a nutshell we have a list made up of:
• Two Canadian authors
• Six authors from the UK
• Two writers from Ireland
• Three writers representing the USA
So yet another year when there is not a single author from Oceania on the list. Strange that Peter Carey, a previous winner, didn’t make it this year.
No author from the Indian sub continent. Last year at least we had one Indian and two UK/Pakistan writers on the list.
But once again no author from any African country.
This is such a disappointing trend. One of the things I loved about the Booker lists in the past was the international flavour because it introduced me to new authors from parts of the world whose literature was generally an unknown quantity to me. The Man Booker International Prize doesn’t entirely fill the gap because that is only for fiction translated into English, so many Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans are not eligible.
Do I have any predictions for this year’s ultimate winner? Short answer is no, I haven’t a clue because I’ve not read any of these books. I do have Bauer’s novel on hold at the library because I’ve enjoyed her previous novels but there is a long waiting list. As good as it’s likely to be, I don’t see it winning purely because the Booker judges would be afraid of being labelled “popularist” if they dared to choose a crime novel. I’d be happy for Donal Ryan to win because I thoroughly enjoyed The Spinning Heart and Michael Ondaatje’s previous winner The English Patient is one of my top 3 Booker favourites across all the years. Is it likely they would choose him for their 50th anniversary. If they did it would be a remarkable feat since he was only recently announced as the winner of the Golden Booker prize. Stranger things have happened with the Booker prize however.
The Man Booker Longlist 2018
- Belinda Bauer (UK) : Snap (Bantam Press): a thriller by an author from Wales
- Anna Burns (UK) : Milkman (Faber & Faber): described as a ‘creepy’ novel set against the background of The Troubles in Ireland
- Nick Drnaso (USA): Sabrina (Granta Books): the first graphic novel to reach the
- Esi Edugyan (Canada): Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail): Edugyan is a previous nominee having been shortlisted in 2011 for Half-Blood Blues
- Guy Gunaratne (UK): In Our Mad And Furious City (Tinder Press): a debut novel
- Daisy Johnson (UK): Everything Under (Jonathan Cape): debut novel
- Rachel Kushner (USA): The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape): a novel partly set in a women’s correctional facility from an author who says her inspiration is Don DeLillo
- Sophie Mackintosh (UK): The Water Cure (Hamish Hamilton): debut dystopian novel from a young Welsh author
- Michael Ondaatje (Canada): Warlight (Jonathan Cape): the only previous winner of the prize to be selected this year
- Richard Powers (USA): The Overstory (William Heinemann): Pulitzer- winning novelist longlisted in 2014 for Orfeo.
- Robin Robertson (UK): The Long Take (Picador): debut novel from a Scottish poet, written partly in verse
- Sally Rooney (Ireland): Normal People (Faber & Faber): the second novel from the winner of the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award
- Donal Ryan (Ireland): From A Low And Quiet Sea (Doubleday Ireland): Ryan is a previous nominee having been longlisted in 2013 for The Spinning Heart