Reviews Round-up

The critics’ verdicts on Beryl Bainbridge and Judy Golding.

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

The author's "final book, which was all but finished when she died of cancer in July last year," writes Paul Bailey in the Independent, "ranks among the finest of Bainbridge's fine works of fiction." Fittingly, he adds," The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress reads like a summation of Beryl Bainbridge's art," and as well as being "carefully constructed, as always," the novel gives the impression that "the author is returning to her roots, using the rich material of her early life in wartime Liverpool to devastating effect."

For Melvyn Bragg in the Guardian however it is the character of Rose that really makes the novel shine. "On the way to being one of Beryl Bainbridge's greatest creations," he notes, "she is given an internal life through sentences that are brilliantly elliptical and often very funny," and is central to this "superb and memorable work of fiction."

Mark Bostridge in the Financial Times is equally praiseworthy. Despite the fact that the author "struggled to write this, her final novel," he comments, "TheGirl in the Polka-dot Dress, Bainbridge's 18th work of fiction, emerges as a tour de force, well able to take its place alongside two other books that I judge to be her masterpieces."

The Children of Lovers: A Memoir of William Golding by his daughter

"Judy Golding is a sophisticated and self-conscious memoirist," writes Helen Taylor in the Independent, "flagging delicate evasions and yet having the courage to explore the cruelties, inconsistencies and conflicts within her father as they impacted on family life and her own psyche."

Claire Harman in the Scotsman also admires Judy Golding's ability to write about the complexities of the Golding family. "The result," Harman notes, "is a lyrical meditation on the history of her tight-lipped, clever family, her sad strivings to please and emulate her adored father and 'the many submerged rocks' in the choppy sea of their life together."

"Years in the writing," Kate Kellaway similarly comments in the Guardian, the book "is at pains not to rock the family boat unfairly," but despite this however, she adds, "the darker side of life tends to sidle up on this narrative."

Jane Shilling in the Telegraph, elucidating this bleaker aspect of the book, writes that novel's inside account of the Goldings, for all its interest, "is a moderate, rather restrained account of a relationship that was clearly at times exceptionally painful." She concludes "for both Judy and her brother, taking cover took at various times the extreme form of mental collapse; Judy recovered from a breakdown while she was a teenager, her brother's problems seem to have been more intractable."

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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution