According to those close to her, Beryl Bainbridge was striving to finish her last novel shortly before she died in July last year. Not only does it seem an entirely natural impulse in a lifelong writer confronting the final line, but The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress adapts one of storytelling’s most established narratives, the quest. How, then, to be satisfied with creating a search without a discovery, a journey without an arrival?
Except that Bainbridge was never quite that neat a writer; elliptical, mysterious and not too hung up on the indispensability of closure, her novels quite frequently seemed to lack an easily decipherable resolution, and be all the more powerful for it. This, her 18th, does indeed seem to have been interrupted by her death; her long-term friend and editor, Brendan King, prepared the text for publication from her working manuscript, “taking into account suggestions that Beryl made at the end of her life.” But despite the novel’s climax tending to be febrile and incomplete — not only bringing to an end the journey of its two central characters but also encompassing the assassination of Robert Kennedy — what remains is a characteristically dark and mischievous slice of Beryl at her best.
We begin in confusion. Rose, a dental receptionist who has been side-stepping the advances of dubious men ever since she arrived in London at 16, a refugee from an oppressively unhappy childhood, is now on the move again. Almost 30 but strangely childlike, her destination is the US but may as well be the moon, so adrift does she seem; and her host, the daffodil-bearded Washington Harold, immediately strikes one as inadequate as a protector. But why are Rose and Harold, who barely know one another, poised to journey from Baltimore to California in a second-hand camper van, albeit one with running water, and an Abraham Lincoln clock? And why are they so intent on tracking down the trilby-hatted but otherwise almost featureless Fred Wheeler?
The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress
By Beryl Bainbridge
Clues come quicker than answers. Rose regards Wheeler as her savior, the catalyst that allowed her to escape the parents who blighted her childhood and were responsible for the adoption of the child she bore when under age; he appears to have had no direct agency, but rather imbued her with the liberating apprehension that “suffering was the direct and immediate object of life”, and that the world is a penal colony where a price must be paid for existence. Harold’s view of Wheeler is rather different: his metamorphosis from implausibly glamorous and powerful friend to wife-stealer means Harold’s mission is one of revenge rather than reunion, a fact he is at pains, throughout, to conceal from Rose.
Wheeler, however, is not all that divides them. Disappointed by one another almost from the off, they make curious traveling companions, rumbling from Baltimore towards Los Angeles where, it is rumored, Wheeler has become part of Kennedy’s entourage ahead of the California primary — in a state of mutual incomprehension that often shades into disdain. Of Rose’s gnomic pronouncements, mystical flights of fancy and incuriosity towards her surroundings, Harold “told himself that if he wanted to avoid slapping her he must bear in mind that he was dealing with a retard.”
For her part, Rose wishes merely to keep on the road, homing in on the almost existentially elusive Wheeler; Harold’s expectations of her — he envisages her tossing salad while he points out the wonders of the night sky and then, we imagine, the rest — are of little concern to her. And we don’t entirely blame her. “Trust Harold,” remarks one of his bohemian friends when Rose reveals she has been taken on a less than thrilling tour of Washington. “Always the man for exciting information.”