So far I have really appreciated the dark humour Beryl Bainbridge winds through the previous novels I’ve read; An Awfully Big Adventure, Sweet William and Harriet Said, but sadly any such flashes of brilliance in Winter Garden were overshadowed by either a weak plot or one that I simply didn’t ‘get’.
Douglas Ashburner is a lawyer, married or many years with two adult children when he is persuaded by Nina, who he is conducting a clandestine affair with, to join her on a trip to Moscow with the Soviet’s Artist Union. Douglas duly tells his wife he is off to the Highlands fishing, and arrives at Heathrow to meet his fellow travellers at the airport complete with his fishing rod.
The other members of the party are Bernard a minor celebrity in the world of art, and Enid a less well-known artist. Having to indulge in a certain amount of subterfuge regarding their true relationship Douglas finds himself sat apart from Nina during the flight, the book being set in the 1980s air travel was not the regimented affair it is today. Nina had asked Douglas to put her medication in her suitcase which doesn’t arrive in Moscow with the rest of the party. The failure to track down his case causes Douglas more than a bit of worry as he is going to have a devil of a job explaining why it got lost at an airport when it should be with him in Scotland.
If I’m honest after we reach this part of the book, I struggled to make much sense of anything further. Nina mysteriously disappears from the entourage with various excuses and explanations being given for where she is, mainly led by Olga, their translator for the trip. The weird occurrences keep happening with a particularly odd nocturnal encounter on a train trip to Leningrad, none of which are furnished with any real resolution that makes proper sense although I think I know what we are supposed to believe, the problem is I’m not sure!
What I did find interesting is the descriptions of Soviet Russia which come complete with the biting cold weather, not good news for Douglas as he misplaced his hat along the way although he does carry a pink scarf of Nina’s to keep the cold out of his ears. These descriptions of various engagements, viewing of graveyards and paintings include Beryl Bainbridge’s legendary wit, I was particularly fond of the visit to Stalin’s birthplace and the Russian characters we met. I’m really not so sure about Douglas who seemed incredibly naïve, and not just about his affair, particularly considering he’s supposed to be a lawyer. As Nina was off page she was fairly insubstantial although this aspect was nicely balanced by Enid who had some real depth. The trouble is interesting people only take you so far when these are pretty much disconnected from a plot.
Winter Garden was my second read of my 20 Books of Summer Challenge 2017.