WINTER GARDEN by Beryl Bainbridge


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Bainbridge's latest dark farce begins in characteristic form--a spot of middle-class, middle-age adultery, drab and joyless--but gradually spreads itself into something more ambitious, with fuzzier edges and rather fewer laughs than usual. The unhappy adulterer this time is London lawyer Douglas Ashburner, who tells his wife he's off on a Scotland fishing trip. . . but really heads, rod and reel in hand, for Heathrow: he's joining his mistress, artist Nina (wife of a famed brain surgeon), on a trip to Russia, courtesy of the Soviet Artists' Union. This being Bainbridge, the expedition is, of course, a disaster. Nina is ill--and less than adoring--from the start. Ashburner's baggage is lost. Their companions are abrasive artist/TV-personality Bernard Burns (he once called an ""interviewer a prick for confusing an etching with an engraving"") and tetchy artist Enid. In Moscow, their interpreter-guide forces them to circle St. Basil's Cathedral again and again (""'Look,' she commanded""). The art is awful, the food is worse. But the level of distress soon shifts from comic mishap to simmering Kafka-esque panic. Nina goes off for lunch with a Russian colleague and never returns, as the rest of the party is hustled along to Leningrad (is she in hospital? defecting? dallying? dead?). Ashburner begins to hallucinate, seeing Nina everywhere and seeming to have mid-sleep sex with someone on the train. And by the time the group winds up in hot, dreary Tblisi, Ashburner is ill, sure that Nina's been killed, and apparently under arrest as a spy: ""Even the man who is sensible and composed, he thought, must pale before life's contradictions."" As always, Bainbridge's scene-by-scene command is awesome, with great waves of mood and texture evoked by the leanest, most ironically austere bits of narrative and dialogue. And some new readers may be drawn in by the art-world satire and the Russian-tour trimmings. Overall, however, this is not top-drawer Bainbridge: the themes that usually lurk just beneath the surface of her most everyday comedies--life as a ""winter garden,"" barren and stony--are sitting too much on top here; the existential unease that sneaks up on you in the best novels is too bluntly (and derivatively) plowed into this time. Still, even so-so Bainbridge is full of talent and pleasure and intelligence; and though veteran fans may be slightly disappointed, newcomers will probably be pleased--and inspired to explore the rest of the rich Bainbridge canon.

Pub Date: March 5th, 1981
Publisher: Braziller