"Another Part of the Wood" is a promising early novel, originally published in England in the mid-'60s, by a writer who has since become well-known for such books as "Harriet Said" and "The Bottle Factory Outing." Somewhat less deft and polished than Bainbridge's later works, it is nonetheless a scrupulously detailed, wryly witty and ultimately harrowing study of manners in the British middle and working classes, of the effects of dependency on a variety of weak people and of the lies we all tell ourselves to make life bearable and the deadly passions that lie buried under the dull surface of our daily banalities. d
The central symbol in "Another Part of the Wood" is "a man with a beard called Joseph," who has come down from London to spend a week at a rustic camp in Wales accompanied by his son Roland (who usually lives with his divorced mother), his current mistress Dotty, and a retarded boy -- named Kidney, for some obscure reason -- who is a sort of protege and perhaps a substitute for the usually absent son.
Later arrivals are Col. Lionel Gosling, who was in World War II two decades earlier, who boasts that he once talked to Churchill (probably a lie) and who wears on a chain a coin that claims he took off from a German soldier (another lie, most likely). His wife, May, is a dull and, on the whole, repulsive woman who hates him. Add to the mix a factory worker who spends his vacations at the camp tending to the trees and grounds, a retired Welsh miner who does odd jobs around the camp, and the quiet, reclusive scion of the relatively affluent family that owns the property, and you have a functional microcosm.
They are, on the whole, a scruffy lot, driven by obscure fears into various self-deceptions and barely able to cope with life's demands without resorting to opiates -- for Dotty, a compulsive, nightly game of Monopoly; for the Colonel, a bottle of whisky that he keeps hidden in his car; for Kidney, the phenobarbitone pills that he must take three times daily, though there is some question whether his need is physical or psychlogical.
Bainbridge has worked in, but not, thoroughly developed, some Biblical overtones, centering in the figure of Joseph -- as a father, like the New Testament exemplar of that name, and as an interpreter of dreams, like the Old Testament Joseph. (Dotty, on a visit to a nearby village, thinks of buying a present for him but instead buys a coat of many colors for herself, knowing that he will hate it.)
There is a mountain (more of a hill, actually) near the camp, and one of Joseph's goals during the vacation is to climb it with Roland and thus fulfill his image of himself as a good father. But the excursion is repeatedly postponed, for one plausible reason or another, and instead, Roland finally goes climbing with Kidney. At the top of the mountain, Roland receives some tablets -- not the stone tablets of the law, but Kidney's bottle of pills, the chief distinction and the sustenance of Roland's rival for his father's affection. The results of this act, which seems to be the central action of the book, are ultimately fatal.
Some of the symbols are murky, some merely cute (Lionel Gosling is metaphorically, both a lion and a goose as well as a symbol of a declining empire), and they seem to rush off in many directions rather than working together for a unified effect. But this slow-moving book does acquire a cumulative momentum, pointing toward an effective, quietly powerful end, and much of the detail work is exquisite.
If "Another Part of the Wood" is less than a finished masterpiece, it is also a book showing enormous potential. It leaves one wanting to read more work by this fledgling writer -- as, of course, a growing audience has already done.