I don’t know what’s up with the judges this year, but I got the same weird vibe from Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing that I got from Amis’s Ending Up. The jacket copy describes this novel as “very funny,” and more precisely as a black comedy. While I understand the impulse to apply these labels, I’m not feeling it.
This novel bears a resemblance to the previous year’s short-listed Bainbridge novel,The Dressmaker. Both that novel and this feature lonely women leading diminished lives with one (or two in the earlier novel) dreaming of a grander, more joyful existence and the other resigned to her rather dismal present. In this novel, Freda, a big, bold young woman with grandiose and romantic notions of her future, shares a bedsit with the subdued and downtrodden Brenda, who has fled the countryside and an unhappy marriage to a hard-drinking farmer with a meddlesome mother.
Freda has found Brenda and herself jobs at a nearby wine bottling factory in London, where they work with Italian immigrants who have been with the owner, Mr. Paganotti, for a generation. The workers themselves have formed an insular community, retaining their language and customs despite their long residence in England. The two English women have become something akin to celebrities in the factory, admired by their fellow workers and management alike—apparently for being English and women. The plant manager, Mr. Rossi, keeps trying to maneuver the reluctant Brenda into compromising positions, while Vittorio, the owner’s nephew somewhat more obliquely encourages Freda to pursue a romance with him. The novel opens with plans for a pleasure outing that Freda has arranged for everyone at the factory to visit “a Stately Home,” where they will “stroll through Elizabethan Gardens,” and she will get her relationship with Vittorio off the ground.
The novel maintains a note of sad inevitability from the start. We might hope that the romantic pairings hinted at will flower during the outing, but the main characters’ psychologies foretell a grimmer outcome. Brenda’s efforts to both elude and cajole not just the handsy Mr. Rossi but also Patrick, the Irish van driver whom she may or may not fancy, are grounded in childhood lessons: Brenda was taught early on to acquiesce in things she didn’t want to do and resist those she did. Freda’s efforts to seduce Vittorio prior to and at the actual outing present a different if more understandable delusion in which she envisions herself beloved and idolized, living a life of luxury and romance in the Mediterranean. Dysfunction and desperation, then, ground the outlandish and darkly comic events that occur before, during, and after the outing in ways that drain away much of their humor.
This despite some nicely managed comic elements. Character biography and characterization do make the machinery of the plot apparent, encouraging us to take things lightly, I suppose. Language barriers and other sorts of culture clashes create both miscommunication and secrets that help drive things along. We even get a kind of “chorus” of black-suited Italian workers whose mystification at their oddly unfolding holiday put the principals’ adventures in relief. But the novel just feels grim. We keep waiting for a turn that never arrives, driving toward an ending that makes a kind of grotesque sense but cannot finally satisfy.
The Bottle Factory Outing is an odd novel in what is shaping up to be an odd year for the short list.