Tuesday 19 June 2012

Injury Time - Beryl Bainbridge

It's Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week with Annabel/Gaskella... hope you're joining in!

Can you imagine what would happen if the casts of Abigail's Party and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were held hostage in a siege?  Well, if you can't, then read Injury Time and it'll give you a pretty good idea.  The sexual bewilderment of George and Martha is combined with the 1970s would-you-like-an-olive stylings of Beverley et al in Bainbridge's 1977 novel, somewhere in the middle of her writing career.

Edward is a somewhat hapless chap, working in dull job and in a marriage with Helen which, if not loveless, is hardly passionate.  And he has a mistress - albeit one with three unruly children at home, and no intention of staying submissively in the shadows.  His mistress rejoices in the absurd name Binny.
Binny was a wonderful mother, but she didn't seem to realise he was a very busy man and his time was limited. They could never do anything until her ten-year-old had settled down for the night.  They could usually start doing something at about five to eleven, and then they had to do it very quickly because Edward had to leave at quarter past eleven.  He was always whispering frantically into Binny's ear what he might do if only they had a whole evening together, and she grew quite pale and breathless and hugged him fearfully tightly in the hall, mostly when seeing him out.
Binny is tired of fitting in around Helen's schedule (although Helen supposedly does not know of Binny) and demands that Edward ceases to treat her as a dirty little secret.  In order to pacify Binny, Edward agrees to invite his colleague Simpson, and Simpson's wife Muriel, to a dinner party at Binny's house.  What could possibly go wrong?

Bainbridge is great at showing the awkwardness of this dinner party and all its shades of morality: Simpson has overstated his wife's approval of the night, for example, and Binny's attempts to maintain a presentable dinner party in bizarre circumstances are drawn wonderfully.  My favourite character, though, is Binny's neighbour Alma, who turns up mid-way through the party, rather the worse for wear.  I don't know what I find so amusing about characters who incongruously pepper their conversation with 'darling' and 'dear', but it always makes me chuckle.  Indeed, the whole novel is very funny - mostly a humour which comes from dialogue, clashes of characters, and surreal turns of events.
"Drunken driving is a crime," said Simpson stiffly.  "It should carry the harshest penalties."

"What are you worried about, darling?  I lost my licence, didn't I?"  All at once Alma's face crumpled.  Tears spilled out of her ludicrous eyes.

"You can talk, George," Muriel said coldly.  "You're only wearing one shoe."
The most bizarre twist, as I mentioned at the beginning and as the cover suggests, is that these characters find their evening's festivities interrupted when two men and a woman come running through the front door (complete with a pram holding a doll) and hold them all hostage.  The house is chosen more or less at random, and they are simply a bargaining tool against the police.

What makes Injury Time so hilarious is that Beryl Bainbridge chooses not to change the tone when the hostage situation takes place.  The characters - especially irrepressible Alma - don't alter the way they talk, and the dynamics between man, mistress, colleague, and wife all remain fraught, uncomfortable and very funny.  It helps that Ginger and Harry, the main two hostage-takers, are not your normal criminals.  Some fairly disturbing events occur in Injury Time, but they are described with such lightness, and focus upon social awkwardness rather than anything more traumatic, that this remains decidedly a comic novel.  As my first foray into the world of Bainbridge, I'm off to a fantastic start, and I look forward to seeing what else the week brings.


  1. This book sounds great! It sounds somewhat similar to Muriel Spark, which can only be a positive thing.

    I've been wanting to check out BB's work. I have two of her books on my shelves, but (surprise!) I haven't read them yet.

    1. I think you'd enjoy this one - it's definitely got elements of Spark in there.

  2. You make this sound so tempting! I'm always impressed by writers who manage to write so well about what I guess I would describe as 'uncomfortableness'.

    1. Absolutely - especially when it's done amusingly as well, rather than just awkwardly.

  3. I'm just finishing reading this one - and I agree with everything you say. Brilliant review Simon - Thanks.

    1. Thanks Annabel! I wouldn't have read it for years if it weren't for your initiative - so thanks :)

  4. I just finished reading the book and was shocked at the ending. Now I know why I really hate "black comedies". Don't the two main characters end up dead. That's not my idea of anything comical.


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