A Final Consolation?: The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

on Tuesday, June 7, 2011
So will bridesmaid Beryl belatedly bag a bona fide Booker? It's as hard a question to answer as it is to ask five times quickly. Two years after her death, Beryl Bainbridge's final novel, The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress, has finally seen the light of day. It's as if, in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python, the great Dame has popped her head out of the grave to remind us all that she is "not dead yet!" and demanded to be back in contention. The weight of goodwill alone should put her in good stead. I mean, everyone loves Beryl. Not enough to ever give her a Booker, but certainly enough to invent a special one just for her. Now it appears the Best of Beryl might have been a tad premature. Stop the press! A carcass might actually take home the big one, either on merit or, like Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, as a consolation prize. Could it possibly be true?

The short answer, I'm afraid to say, is no. Indeed, not only does Bainbridge stand little chance of winning, but I'd be surprised if she were even invited to be in the wedding party. The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress supposedly draws on the author's personal experience of a road trip she took across America in the late 60's and reframes it to imagine the mysterious girl (Bainbridge calls her Rose) who was implicated in the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. It is episodic, picaresque and takes on all the classic tropes of the buddy novel. Rose even gets a gruff American sidekick, the brooding, questionably-motived Harold. It also has an element of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the idea of a stranger in a strange land - this time a prissy girl in overwhelming middle America - searching for a mysterious guru, Dr. Wheeler. Alas, none of it really works to lift this beyond the barely functional. I never came to care about Rose, nor whether she would find the elusive doctor. Harold was an irritating stick in the mud. Every stop on the journey came across as a contrived set piece to expose a slice - sometimes seedy, often irrelevant - of America. Even the brief encounters with Sirhan Sirhan, which I'm sure were meant to fill the reader with dread, failed to stir me.

The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress will go down as a minor work in the Bainbridge canon, if it is remembered at all. Consolation prizes aside, I'd be shocked to it see on any list come October especially given the calibre of Commonwealth fiction coming out this year. But let's face it. Beryl doesn't need another consolation prize. It would be beneath her, so to speak. The time has now come to let this sleeping Dame lie!


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