Archive | September, 2018

Van has finished reading… The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

21 Sep

bottle factory outing

Well, that didn’t end up where I thought it might! Freda and Brenda work in an Italian-owned wine factory. One pursuing and the other pursued, they each anticipate the Company outing with fear and excitement. A day out in the English countryside, in winter – what could possibly go wrong?

Of course the short answer to that is anything and everything from the hilarious to the excruciating, though I wouldn’t have expected the sinister to be on the list.

Published in 1974 which is I think, though I’m no political historian, just before the Government of the day took us into the EU, Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing throws up some interesting parallels as we prepare to exit the EU in the near future. The Italians are presented almost as caricature – the young desirable male, the grabby boss, the tea-leaf-reading old woman, the huddled mass of peasantry – which serves to highlight the depth of the two English women’s understanding of their colleagues. While it would be nice to think we’re beyond this in 2018 the sad fact is that I could well imagine such characters being contemporary, the only difference now being that such limited experience and understanding of ‘foreigns’ would likely pigeonhole social status and class more precisely.


The dialogue is bristling – if you’re not sure what I mean by that, try reading Brenda and Freda’s interactions through gritted teeth. It brings out the malevolence that is latent in each exchange. And the subtlety by which the author tweaks your understanding is sublime. I remember AL Kennedy, in her On Writing, talking about arguing the merits of a book as part of a judging panel because of the amount of work it takes to make a piece of writing appear so simple. Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing might well be a case in point. Brenda’s mirroring of Patrick’s vowels to underline her conciliatory nature, and the books down the middle of the bed – not that they’re uncomfortable but that Freda doesn’t understand the preference of their presence over intimacy because she’s never been married. Add to that the fact that neither Freda nor Brenda are particularly sympathetic characters, making it hard for the reader to feel especially sorry for their plight. The genius of this, of course, is that we can laugh at as well as with them and yet appreciate the enormity of events at the close from a cool distance, thus feeling its impact on all sides.


Beryl Bainbridge’s The Bottle Factory Outing is a short slice of brilliance. If you like your reading witty, your horror funny, or your humour pitch dark this is definitely the book for you. I’m surprised it hasn’t made it onto film yet!


The Bottle Factory Outing was originally published by Duckworth in 1974 ISBN:9780349123714

Van has finished reading… Dark Water by Elizabeth Lowry

13 Sep


dark water

Floundering on his first voyage on the USS Orbis, Ship’s doctor Hiram Carver meets William Borden, a captivating presence, a legend among sailors, hero of The Providence. But every ship faces terror from the deep, and what happens on the Orbis will bind Carver and Borden together forever. When Carver recovers and takes up a role at Boston’s Asylum for the Insane, he will meet Borden again. Carver devotes himself to Borden’s cure, sure it depends on drawing out the truth of events on The Providence. But can he find the truth? Can he reconcile the man and the myth and bring them up into the light, out of the dark water?


Let me confess my ignorance up-front: I’ve not read Moby Dick (I did once try a Herman Melville book and it succeeded in putting me off trying any others). That said, and given the contemporary time period and the fact that Melville sailed these same waters, I could well imagine there ensuing some debate as to whether there’s a whale out there for each of us, and what particular shape it might take. More familiar for me was the feeling that Hiram Carver might’ve stepped complete from the pages of a Henry James; and there’s that strange synchronicity that I notice sometimes in the books I read – Elizabeth Lowry’s very Jamesian tale following James Baldwin’s equally Jamesian Giovanni’s Room (and to extend the theme further I’m now on to Beryl Bainbridge’s the Bottle Factory Outing where, as in Dark Water, an episode of cheek-biting ensues!).

I think it might be Elizabeth Lowry’s writing that I enjoyed the most in Dark Water. The story in itself is not so surprising (if it’s nautical shocks you’re after from your historical fiction you should also take a look at Ian MacGuire’s The North Water), though in lesser hands it would’ve been just that, a closed shell of a story. What Elizabeth Lowry does is present this world through the lens that is Hiram Carver. Or should that be the mirror. Though it’s Hiram telling the tale, and therefore his view of events and characters, it’s really Hiram’s story and it’s with a very deft hand that Elizabeth Lowry reflects and reveals, shucking the shell so we see the man within. I particularly enjoyed the vein of pomposity that runs through Hiram which gave rise to some unexpected but delightfully dry humour.

The scene-setting is excellent, too and never more so than on the Orbis. Elizabeth Lowry’s awareness of the space and the people who occupy it makes it vivid, almost real enough to taste. It’s very nicely done.


Elizabeth Lowry’s Dark Water is a cracking read. As the nights grow longer and the winter winds make your house creak and groan like a ship’s rigging, light a fire, pour a snifter of brandy and sink in.


Dark Water was published by riverrun on the 6th September 2018 ISBN:9781786485625

You can find Elizabeth Lowry on Twitter @MElizabethLowry

My thanks to Ana McLaughlin (@AnaBooks) for allowing me to review this book