Books: War in the family

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The Independent Culture

Master Georgie

by Beryl Bainbridge Abacus pounds 6.99

Beryl Bainbridge was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize for her 17th novel, set during the Crimean War. This absorbing story of an unhealthily close-knit family is told by three characters whose lives are deeply affected by George Hardy, the spoilt, firstborn son of a wealthy Liverpool family, absorbed by medicine and amateur photography.

George and the narrators are bound by a guilty secret that we are in on from the start, although its consequences remain obscure and sinister throughout. They leave the city, its docks, and grand public buildings for the horrors of Constantinople's battlefields, where George feels duty- bound to exercise his surgical skills. Myrtle, the most painstakingly elusive of the trio, is an orphan who was taken in by the Hardy family as an infant, and raised as a skivvy. She forms an obsessive attachment to Master Georgie, and their ensuing closeness changes the power balance in the family, raising her social status. Georgie's brother-in-law is a pompous but likeable geologist, who tags along as an "observer", quoting the classics to the annoyance of all, but displaying a profound emotional honesty that is absent in the others. Finally, Pompey Jones, an entrepreneurial street youth, interacts with his "betters" at crucial moments of the story. He is the catalyst, revealing tensions within this self-involved family, and forcing their innermost secrets into the open. Although a bloody war is being fought in the background, the conflicts lie within this group.

The economy of Bainbridge's writing, for which she is famous, results in a slender novel with an astonishing range. t climaxes with the notorious battle of nkerman, but the focus is on an atheistic skirmish with religious conversion. Photography is a motif which highlights the short-lived intensity of emotions; the layering of its frozen images - wild cherries rotting in a dead soldier's lap, Myrtle's hand resting on a corpse - suggests the distinct stages of each character's emotional progress. All three contribute their reflections on the action in a diction that is skilfully wedded to their individual circumstances and education. Costume drama is not Bainbridge's style, although her knowledge of the period ensures that she is historically correct. nstead, emotional landscapes are packed with the ideological baggage of the times, and deployed to excite the reader's interest until the adroitly dovetailed end that forces the reader back to the opening pages.