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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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