Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Harriet Said – Beryl Bainbridge

Classic 5*s
Classic Fiction
5*s

Set in Formby soon after the end of the Second World War, Harriet Said is one of the darkest and most disturbing fictional books I have ever read, and those of you who read my reviews will note that I tend towards the dark side! There is something very frightening about young girls, and Harriet and her nameless friend our narrator, are just thirteen and fourteen years old at a time when we imagine that generation to be cloaked in innocence.

At the beginning of the summer holidays our narrator, having returned from boarding school is awaiting her older friend’s return from her holiday in Wales, but when Harriet returns she fears their bond is not as strong as their previous time together, one where they flirted with the Italian prisoners of war close to Formby beach and then Harriet dictated their escapades to be written in their shared diary. Harriet is painted as the more attractive, confident and daring of the two girls and as the title alludes to, the one who dreams up all their schemes for amusement. Harriet’s father is fierce, his wife subservient and Harriet herself is pretty much left to her own devices. Both girls go out in the evening most often to the beach where our narrator converses with Mr Biggs, who the girls have nicknamed ‘The Tsar’.

The contrast between their assumed innocence and the knowing way they engage the middle-aged Mr Biggs attention, baiting him, spying on him and his wife all the while determined that this summer they will top all their previous adventures. We know that this pair have transgressed in the past, this is the very reason why the younger of the two was sent to boarding school. But, this book isn’t all about what their plans are for Mr Biggs, it is about the almost obsessional relationship between the girls who seem to crave each other’s attention whilst vying for supremacy, for while Harriet is said to be the leader, the turn this book takes makes that seem far from certain.

If you are looking for a book with likeable characters you can relate to, don’t choose this book where just about everyone has a deep character flaw or at best odd. This is despite the fact that it is Harriet who shows this side the most, in the way she sweetly behaves in front of her elders, charms even those in the village who distrust her and patronises her mother without her even realising it. This is a girl who will turn up at her friend’s house and converse with her mother, a woman who surely is aware that this girl has been the cause of trouble in the past, even if it isn’t of the magnitude of the here and now! And no, I haven’t broken my only rule of reviewing, this is not a spoiler as we know from the beginning that something happens which the girls are covering up, what and why is not revealed until the end of this slim book, I thought I knew but, as usual I was a little off the beaten track!

I was finally prompted to buy my copy of this book after reading Ali’s wonderful review on her blog; Heavenali, and have since found out that Beryl Bainbridge wrote this book after being inspired by newspaper stories of a murder committed in Christchurch New Zealand in 1954 by two teenaged girls. This was the author’s first book, rejected because of its content and not published until 1972 when she was already the darling of the literary world. I am now looking forward to reading more by this author. For those of you wondering how such a dark book can have such a beautiful cover, there is a scene at a fairground which neatly highlights how young these two girls actually are, yet youth doesn’t always infer innocence.

If anyone can recommend me another book by this author, I’d really appreciate it.

Author:

A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

44 thoughts on “Harriet Said – Beryl Bainbridge

  1. So glad you enjoyed this. There is going to be another Beryl Bainbridge reading week in June hosted by Annabel of Annabel’s house of books. I have several of her books waiting to read.

  2. I’ve read some of Beryl Bainbridge’s books and enjoyed them all. According to Queenie, a novel about the life of Samuel Johnson as seen through the eyes of Queeney, Mrs Thrale, Master Georgie, set in the Crimean War telling the story of George Hardy, a surgeon and The Birthday Boys a novel about Captain Scott’s last Antarctic Expedition are historical novels.

    Other novels of hers I’d recommend are An Awfully Big Adventure. a semi-autobiographical novel based on Beryl Bainbridge’s own experience as an assistant stage manager in a Liverpool theatre, set in 1950, as a Liverpool repertory theatre company are rehearsing its Christmas production of Peter Pan, and A Quiet Life. another semi-autobiographical novel, using her own childhood and background as source material, which I thought a brilliant book. Actually all of them are brilliant!

    1. Thank you Margaret I am very pleased that I managed to pick up a copy of An Awfully Big Adventure at a book sale on Saturday which sounds fantastic from your comments I also have a copy of Winter Garden which sounds interesting The historical novels you mention written by this author also sound very good so I will keep an eye out for them to – I really do appreciate your thoughts and recommendations.

  3. I think I mentioned before I’ve not read any Beryl Bainbridge and she wasn’t even on my radar to be honest. She is now and I will be keeping an eye out for her. This book sounds dark, which I like. I wonder if it’s ever made it to TV – sounds like it should have!

    1. You are right this would have made a captivating TV series athough even or perhaps, especially today I’m sure this one would have some tough critics! I often wonder how I’ve gone through my life and missed out on such fantastic authors – no more!

  4. Oh, this sounds excellent, Cleo – deliciously dark and unsettling. I’m hoping to read my first Bainbridge for Annabel’s reading week in June. Assuming I take to it (which I’m pretty sure I will) then this will move onto my TBR list. Lovely review!

  5. This does sound like a dark and disturbing read, Cleo. And it sounds as though it’s one of those psychological thrillers where the suspense is as much mental and emotional as anything else. Intriguing!

    1. It is quite shocking Margot, and I’m not easily shocked, even more so when I realised it was first written in the 1950s – an amazing piece of writing which had me captivated as well as horrified.

  6. I love Beryl Bainbridge she’s one of my favourite authors. She is so odd and I mean that in the best possible way. You can never work out what she’s going to do and she writes about sex in a way that very few women do with absolutely no romance or sentimentality attached and often with immense unsettling humour. I’m a big fan of the historical one’s Margaret mentions in her first paragraph above It’s worth giving a miss to The girl in the polka dot dress because she hadn’t finished that when she died and so although good you can tell she didn’t do the final polishing and cutting.

  7. Ah, I was thinking while reading your review that it sounded very like the New Zealand case, which I only know about from the film Heavenly Creatures. A fascinating story, all the more so for being true, though it sounds like Bainbridge has made some changes. Already on my wishlist from Ali’s review – I’m even keener now! I assume you know one of the girls in that case is now a top crime writer herself – Anne Perry.

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