For those of you who have read Beryl Bainbridge before but haven’t delved into An Awfully Big Adventure, this novel will not throw up any surprises and is full of the acerbic wit that you will have come to expect from this Dame of literary writing.
Drawing on her work as an actress at the Liverpool Repertory Theatre company during the 1950’s, Bainbridge chronicles the life of fifteen year old Stella, an aspiring actress who lives with Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily in their guest-house. With the help of Uncle Vernon Stella is taken on as assistant stage manager at the local theatre where rehearsals for the Christmas production of Peter Pan are underway. Stella quickly becomes obsessed with Meredith, the company director, oblivious to the fact that he is gay and he, of course, rebuffs her advances. When the enigmatic, and much older, actor O’Hara arrives as a stand-in for the part of Hook, Stella turns her attentions to forming a relationship with him in the hope that she will make Meredith jealous. This in the end proves to be a fateful decision. Just as in Peter Pan, Stella seems to be looking for love and craves contact with her mysterious and long-vanished Mother whom she only ever talks to by telephone. The reader just hears Stella’s side of the conversation and we are merely informed that “Mother said the usual things”. Bainbridge’s choice of Peter Pan is not accidental, and the themes running throughout the novel echo those within the J.M. Barrie play, particularly that of reality versus imagination, the quest for unrequited love, and the portrayal of childhood innocence and loss. Even the title is taken from Peter Pan when he says “To die will be an awfully big adventure”.
The unexpected twist at the end of the story leaves us to reflect on the corrosive power of concealed family secrets, but the darkly comic and tragic denouement has been plotted by Bainbridge with skill and logic. Having said that the novel, although beautifully crafted, might take a while to get into and the addition of a list of characters at the front of the book would have assisted in a greater understanding as to who they were and what role they played. Bainbridge manages to convey Liverpool in the bleak years after the Second World War with an authenticity that simply comes from having been there and seen it. The mouldy guest house rooms inhabited by the touring provincial performers, the backstage antics and the eccentric behaviour of the theatre ‘lovies’ whose bedroom frolics are worthy of any stage farce, are not cruel but described with knowing affection.
Dame Beryl died earlier this year at the age of 75, leaving behind a legacy of writing that was received favourably by both critics and the public alike. This book is full of sordid pathos and although at times it was hard to follow the plot, this deep, complicated and profound novel ultimately proved to be an awfully big adventure!