ignitonpress, based at Oxford Brookes University’s Poetry Centre, and is an editor there. One of three winners of Primers: Volume Five (Nine Arches Press, 2020), Claire has also won the Alastair Reid Pamphlet Prize with A Book of Days (Wigtown Festival Company, 2020). She was project poet for the Clean Seas Odyssey voyage, 2018, investigating marine plastic pollution. Her article ‘Mourning the Present: Towards a Quantum Elegy’ was published in Exclamat!ion: An Interdisciplinary Journal (Volume 4, 2020).
Set in post-war Liverpool, this sharply-observed novel follows the intrigues of a down-at-heel repertory theatre company in the lead up to their Christmas production of Peter Pan. Told through the eyes of Stella, the teenage assistant stage manager, Bainbridge cleverly counterpoints Stella’s feisty naivety with the seedy sexual misconduct that’s rife within the troupe, and which unfolds with tragic consequences. Stella, brought up in a boarding house by her concerned Uncle Vernon and Aunt Lily, is finally confronted by her own troubled childhood in unexpected and devastating ways.
In a counterpoint to the plot, the whereabouts of Stella’s absent mother is intriguingly handled, as is the fraught mother-daughter relationship. Here, Bainbridge sows the seeds of an underplayed, but deeply emotional element in what is, otherwise, a searingly unsentimental portrayal of humanity’s pettinesses and vanity.
The cast of characters is extensive and deftly drawn. Banbridge has a knack of picking exactly the right telling details to describe her creations in a way that gives them substance and vibrancy. Even the incidental characters offer a richness of texture and serve to underscore the impoverished, slightly sinister mood of the novel, from the young woman wearing a man’s jacket over ‘a gaudy satin slip streaked at the hem with blood’, and the ‘boy with ringworm throwing stones at a cat on a wall’, to the chap in a duffle coat ‘who wore a monocle and flashed a sardonic smile as though he were a member of the SS’.
The description of Stella’s decision to take an impromptu bath sums up Banbridge’s thoroughness in evoking this period of history, one imbued, more likely than not, by her own experiences of post-war Liverpool: paraffin from the chandler’s shop has to be fetched for the stove, which in turn needs to be lugged up two flights of stairs to the bathroom, and a blanket nailed to the window. The view from the bathroom smacks of veritas: ‘a bombed house with the wallpaper hanging in shreds from the chimney-breast’. This description is followed, of course, by another darkly appropriate observation, as here in the back alley ‘sometimes women, no better than they ought to be, lured men into the ruined shadows.’
This acute sense of place continues elsewhere in the novel with finely drawn glimpses of the cityscape. Again, in these descriptions nothing is unsullied. Even symbols of hope or redemption become tarnished: ‘the unfinished transept of the rose-pink cathedral smudged the high white sky.’ These moments work as a backdrop, offering a distant perspective against which the busy entanglements of the protagonists play out. In this respect, Bainbridge is creating a drama within a drama; the performance is one of our foolish mistakes set against the stark scenery of a ravaged world. And the further her plot develops, the more apparent becomes the inexorability of fate, the consequences of tainted actions across the generations that are the life-blood of the Greek tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles. As with these ancient stories, the costs are inescapable and unflinchingly told.
Ultimately, though, it’s Bainbridge’s unrivalled ability to conjure this period of history, the scarred city of Liverpool, its social attitudes, its deeply traumatized, impoverished citizens, with such unerring detail and dark humour that makes this novel a dynamic and memorable read.
An Awfully Big Adventure is published by Abacus.