According to Queeney
by Beryl Bainbridge
A review by Michael Upchurch
For a decade now the British writer Beryl Bainbridge has reshaped the historical novel according to a less-is-more agenda. Not for her the lavish spectacle or painstaking sociopolitical overview. Instead she leads her readers, with few guiding lights, toward some tight and often perilous corner of the past — a Crimean War battlefield (Master Georgie), the Titanic on its way down (Every Man for Himself) — as if to see how we'll fare there. Hers is a grisly vision, with death coming for her floundering, blinkered protagonists sooner rather than later. And yet there's something transcendent in the human struggles she depicts, which touch on both the farcical and the sublime.
According to Queeney is about Samuel Johnson in the last two decades of his life, and it shifts the ground from the physical extremes of war and shipwreck to a setting of urban flux and clamor. But the same circumstances obtain: death looms everywhere, and a whole life is to be given meaning — books written, a past revisited, a final romance consummated — before the moment of extinction arrives. The tone, as always with Bainbridge, is complex: a kind of visceral, biting tenderness or wily, anguished admiration, as Johnson and his objet d'amour, Hester Thrale (the latter encumbered with a living husband, a dying mother, and numerous ailing children), fumble toward an understanding of their feelings for and expectations of each other. Snapping those fumblings into focus is Hester's precocious daughter Queeney, whose jealous temper has a simultaneously sharpening and distorting effect on her insights.
The novel's intent is evident in both its title and its structure. Each chapter recounting events from Johnson's life is followed by Queeney's impatient replies, years later, to queries from a would-be chronicler of Johnson's London. And each reply twists or refutes some detail in the passages preceding it. Bainbridge slyly puts readers at the same disadvantage as her characters, who are rarely clued in to the full picture; and this very constriction of viewpoint is what immerses readers so hectically in the lives and era of the novel. The result: Bainbridge never has to tell you where you are, because, by her own oblique and canny means, she has taken you there already.
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