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The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

John Fury, a horse-farming, spiritually awakened Los Angeles lawyer.

Monsignor Secker, conducting Mass for the American casualties of Vietnam in a small town near the Great Lakes.

The two are among the large, well-drawn supporting cast of a beguilingly demented road trip that is the subject of Beryl Bainbridge’s final novel, The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress.

Rose and Harold are at the centre of the maelstrom. Rose arrives on the east coast of the United States on a one-way ticket from her grim home in Kentish Town, while Harold, an oddball bachelor, commandeers the rattletrap van in which they strike out for the west.

The two are introduced by a mutual acquaintance and at first, trying to work out precisely who they are is like peering through a dusty window – only the vaguest outlines can be discerned. Rose is young, pretty and damaged; Harold is older, and queer in the old-fashioned sense. He might be a sex pest, or merely lacking social skills (a little of both, it turns out).

Their madcap, disorienting cross-country journey is intended to ferret out one Dr Wheeler, which whom each has an unspecific yet powerful connection. Along the way they stop where they might chance to find him, colliding with the novel’s other peculiar inhabitants and discovering repeatedly that he checked out a few days ago, two weeks before.

It is hard to believe Wheeler really exists, or that either of the increasingly redoubtable protagonists is the most absorbent towel on the roll – but the sheer beauty of Bainbridge’s prose is addictive, her ability to conjure whole people calling to mind the descriptive power of F Scott Fitzgerald.

Of Harold’s first encounter with the mysterious Dr Wheeler, at a reception to mark Robert Kennedy’s appointment as Attorney General, she writes:

“When [Wheeler] crossed a room he glided rather than walked, head slightly inclined. Sometimes, when speaking, he shielded his eyes with his hand, the way people did when gazing into the distance. It wasn’t altogether contrived, simply that he was one of those fortunate people who made an impression.”

The adventure spans much of the extraordinary period in 1968 between the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King in early April and that of Democratic presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy in June. Both men cast long shadows: one character describes his witnessing of King’s killing, while Kennedy’s movements on the campaign trail, mentioned in passing, grow more poignant as the duo journeys toward the fated Ambassador Hotel.

The plot thickens, then elongates, and as California looms the reader wonders whether the pay-off will be forthcoming or if, as they say, the journey is the destination. Then they hit the coast and all becomes clear. It’s quite surprising that it does, because when Bainbridge died last July the novel was not yet complete. Her long-time friend and editor Brendan King prepared the text for publication from her working manuscript, taking into account suggestions Bainbridge made at the end of her life and adding no extra material.

It is a book worthy of capping an extraordinary career.

Previously reviewed on Coast FM.

Reviewer: Stephanie Jones


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