The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

I’ve come across the name of Beryl Bainbridge several times in recent years, but basically all I knew about her was that no less than five of her books had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but she had never won the prize. Anyway, I thought it was time for me to read something by her and I chose this novel (which was also shortlisted for the Booker in 1974) because I liked its title and the story as well.

The novel is about two English women, Freda and Brenda who live in a flatshare together, and about a company outing. Freda – big in every sense of the word, confident, fearless – and Brenda – timid, quiet, sweet-tempered – are employed in a bottle factory run by an Italian company, where, apart from a single Irish troublemaker, all their colleagues are Italian. As you might guess, there’s a whole lot of sexual tension in the air between the Englishwomen and the Italian men. While Freda is trying hard to secure the charming Vittorio to herself (who is, by the way, frightened off by Freda’s amazon-like appearance and behavior), Brenda, on the contrary, is trying to get away from the attentions of Rossi, a pushy womanizer, but as she’s much too mild-tempered, she doesn’t succeed.

Accordingly, Freda and Brenda look forward to the company outing with very different hopes and expectations. Freda is sure that far from the rigor of the factory, during a nice picnic in the lovely, sun-spotted countryside, after a couple of glasses of wine she will finally be able to captivate Vittorio’s heart; while Brenda is only hoping that one way or the other she will manage to fend Rossi off. But neither one of them expects what actually happens on the day of the excursion.

According to the review quotes on the back cover, The Bottle Factory Outing is a comic masterpiece and Beryl Bainbridge is mercilessly funny. For a change I have nothing to say against these quotes as they didn’t raise false expectations in me about the novel. But I must add that this is not the kind of comic novel that will make you laugh your head off. Its humor is more like the humor of, for instance, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying: that novel won’t induce roaring laughter either, but the absurd normality (or the totally matter-of-fact absurdity) of its plot and characters is so unbelievably, sickly funny that you cannot take anything seriously.

And this is also the case here. The characters are rather average English and Italian people, they don’t seem any special, and none of them induce excessive love or hatred in the reader. However, these lukewarm, everyday characters are capable of the most unbelievable, most bizarre acts: they go to a safari park with a dead body sitting on the back seat of their car; they try to shoot each other in the throat, but not because of some murderous intent – only because they feel that the other is talking too much; and they get surprisingly creative when it comes to deciding how best to get rid of an unwanted corpse.

Besides the hugely enjoyable blending of the everyday and the absurd, I must mention the descriptions of the novel’s settings: rarely do I come across such vivid, powerful, evocative depictions of rooms, buildings, scenery – the small and dingy flat of the main characters; the cold and filthy workrooms of the bottle factory; and the not-so-lovely and especially not-so-sun-spotted countryside are all depicted in such a way that I’m immediately drawn into the characters’ world and I have some great fun following them through all their bizarre wanderings until we get to the anticlimactic and really funny end of the story.

By the way, I have no idea if this is something of a „typical” Bainbridge novel, but anyway, I liked it and I’m sure I will read other books by her sooner or later.