by Beryl Bainbridge
Although only just over 200 pages this novel reads like an epic. Set in 1840s Liverpool and in the Crimea,the story is narrated by three very different voices; Myrtle, a foundling raised by the Hardy family, who is devoted to the eldest son George,‘Master Georgie’ (just how devoted manifests itself in
an extraordinary way); Dr Potter, geologist, and brother in law to George and Pompey Jones sometime fire-eater, Punch and Judy man, photographer and all-round con artist. The tale begins with the death of the head of George’s father in the bed of a
prostitute. This terrible secret binds Myrtle, George and Pompey as they keep this event from the rest of the family and so begins a strange triangular relationship.
Events really get going when the whole extended family embarks on an ill-advised trip to Constantinople. The proximity of the war zone compels George, who is a surgeon, to help at the field hospital at Scutari where the wounded and dying are brought. George decides to stay and the rest of the family returns home. All except Myrtle and Potter - Myrtle through devotion and Potter through duty. All are astonished when Pompey Jones turns up and the three are re-united.
Conditions at the camp are ghastly, cholera rages and death and disease is everywhere. Unbelievably, the families of some of the soldiers live there also and women and children are among the victims though it’s not until they are shipped to Crimea that the real horror begins.
For me the real genius of this book is not in the narrative but in the resonance of the images of war that Bainbridge conveys. Her inspiration came from contemporary photographs and her descriptions of events are striking; the soldier who Myrtle passes on a riding trip laughing and eating cherries, on her return his face contorted with death and decay, the cherries still in his hand; a disembodied leg with the toes sticking through the boot; a soldier dying, one
lens of his glasses “fractured into a spider’s web. She uses these tableaux to brilliant effect and the images resonate well after the book has ended. In fact, the final scene is set with a photographer taking a picture of a group of soldiers and,unsatisfied with the arrangement, uses a dead comrade to ‘balance’ the frame.
There are many twists and turns in the plot and I don’t want to give them away but suffice to say that references to bi-sexuality, surrogacy and child abuse
ensure that Victorian middle-class morality is seriously challenged.