Already it’s October, and the UK literary world is beginning to focus again on the Booker prize, an annual tradition full of fun and frustration, disappointment and delight. An event that has been sadly diminished, however, by the fact that the great Beryl Bainbridge can no longer be in contention to win. For a long time, a new novel by the Liverpudlian writer would usually find a place on the final six, and she would have to sit there smiling at the award ceremony as the prize went to another. In 1973, The Dressmaker lost out to JG Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur; in 1974, The Bottle Factory Outing lost out to joint winners Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist and Stanley Middleton’s Holiday. In 1990, An Awfully Big Adventure was beaten by AS Byatt’s Possession and in 1996, Graham Swift’s Last Orders scooped the prize over Every Man For Himself.
Bainbridge turned up for the ceremony and was disappointed so often that she became known as the Booker Bridesmaid. She was renowned for her graciousness in defeat; according to the longstanding literary director of the prize Ion Trewin, she smiled wistfully and sighed “maybe next time”. Alas, the time after 1996 was 1998, when her sublime novel Master Georgie lost out to Ian McEwan’s ridiculous Amsterdam. Her final book The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress was knocked out of contention because Bainbridge died in 2011: Booker rules state that only living authors can win.
Justice of a sort was done when the Booker organisation granted Bainbridge her very own posthumous reward. It’s also worth noting that while she didn’t have much luck with the Booker, she did scoop most of the other serious prizes in the UK, and unlike most Booker nominees was made a Dame. Her books also always received a good part of the critical acclaim they were due. But still, it’s worth re-stating what a fine writer she was and it’s going to a fine thing to spend a month here on the Reading group celebrating her work.
The question, as ever, is which book should we read. She wrote 20 novels, three short-story collections and four substantial works of nonfiction, so there’s a lot to choose from. I haven’t read enough to cast any kind of judgment, but between us I know we’ll be able to make a good decision. As often, we’ll put it to the vote. To nominate your favourite, just name it in the comments below. If you could give a reason, that would be fantastic – but it’s not compulsory. I’ll come back in a few days to tot up the totals.
As an extra inducement, we have five copies of the fascinating new biography of Bainbridge to give away to the first five readers from the UK to post “I want a copy please”, along with a nice, constructive comment in the comments section below. If you’re lucky enough to be one of the first to comment, email Laura Kemp with your address (firstname.lastname@example.org). Be nice to her, too. And as usual, all suggestions and ideas for future discussions will be gratefully received.