The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, By Beryl Bainbridge

Paperback reviews of the week

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, By Beryl Bainbridge

Abacus, £7.99

Dame Beryl Bainbridge was in the process of completing The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, when she was interrupted by a deadline of a more final kind. Although her last novel was edited posthumously, it doesn't feel unfinished. Bainbridge's distinctive fiction has always thrived on mysterious lapses and lacunae, and this slender volume shows no diminishment of her considerable powers.

It's the summer of 1968 and a middle-aged misfit known as Washington Harold is poised to drive from Baltimore to California in a newly acquired camper van. His unlikely companion is Rose, a receptionist from Kentish Town. Uniting this odd couple isn't some plan for a groovy road trip, but a mission to track down Dr Wheeler – an elusive figure whom Rose credits with rescuing her from a childhood of domestic violence, and for whom Harold nurses an undisclosed grudge.

Reminiscent of the heroines of Bainbridge's early fiction, Rose proves as prickly as she is pliant. Throughout the journey she regales Harold with melancholic memories of seaside flashers and local loons. Harold, irritated by his passenger's childish monologues and her lack of curiosity about the passing scenery, reminds himself that he's dealing with a "retard".

The road novel aspect of the book takes the form of a series of darkly comic vignettes as the two travellers stop off at diners, motels and at the homes of Harold's beatnik friends – a collection of drunks and depressives among whom Rose feels right at home.

Death is always at the margins of this novel, but takes centre stage as Rose and Harold arrive in Los Angeles – where Wheeler is rumoured to be working alongside Bobby Kennedy. Tracking down their quarry to the Ambassador Hotel, Rose finds herself standing beside Kennedy's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan. The reader knows how Sirhan's story ends, but not Rose's. Bainbridge fades to black with an enigmatic last sentence that is as beautiful as it is defiant: "A star of blood, delicate as a snowflake, melted upon her upper lip." EH


The Invisible Ones, By Stef Penney

Quercus, £7.99

Penney's award-winning debut, The Tenderness of Wolves, was a frontiers-style thriller set in the wilds of Canada. This second novel visits the lawless terrain of suburban orbital London. We find ourselves at the fag end of the 1980s in the offices of Ray Lovell, private investigator. Asked to track down a missing wife, a member of a local Romany family, he is forced to revisit his own Traveller roots. Penney's subversive mystery captures life on the margins and the art of sleuthing in an age before the Internet or the mobile phone: a storyteller on top of her game. EH


My Policeman, By Bethan Roberts

Vintage, £7.99

The history of an uneasy ménage lies at the heart of this poised novel. It's in 1950s Brighton that Marion first falls for her best-friend's brother, Tom. He teaches her to swim in the shadow of the pier, she introduces him to art and culture. Then a boyish curator, Patrick, appears on the scene and is just as smitten by Tom's burly physique as is Marion. Bowing to convention, Tom and Marion marry, but sickness and age will bring the friends back under one roof. This spiky portrait of love makes for a gripping read with a sympathetic rendering of a more closeted age. EH


The Caller, By Karin Fossum

Vintage, £7.99

One summer evening, Lily and Karsten Sundelin are enjoying a quiet quiche while their baby girl naps peacefully in her pram. But when Lily steps outside to rouse the infant she's startled by the sight of a blood-stained blanket. We're programmed to expect such cinematic openings from our Nordic nasties, and Fossum doesn't disappoint. In this tenth in the Inspector Sejer series the self-contained investigator and his sidekick, Skarre, encounter dipsomaniacal mothers, psychopathic youths and a hamster called Bleeding Heart. It's translated by old hand KE Semmel. EH


On the Road to Babadag, By Andrzej Stasiuk

Vintage, 8.99

One of Poland's leading novelists, Stasiuk here takes rural rides in wheezing jalopies through eastern European's forlorn provinces. He proves himself a meditative travel writer of grace and guile. A connoisseur of the fly-blown backwaters, he potters through derelict borderlands with a nose for the poetry of desolation. Readers of Sebald or Sinclair will relish winding routes through Slovakia and Albania, Moldova and Ukraine (finely translated by Michael Kandel). These "orphaned" corners linger in a limbo that he captures with panache. BT etrified hiatus between the end of communism and the beginning of… what, precisely? This bewitching "sleepy country", so mired in the past, may also foreshadow a post-prosperity future. BT


Jubilation! Edited by Kwame Dawes

Peepal Tree Press, £9.99

This weekend, Jamaica may well celebrate 50 years of independence with golden feats on the Stratford track. This rich anniversary anthology of (mostly) new poems reveals a merrily mutinous nation of writers with all the flair and ambition of their sporting peers. Fêted elders (Jean "Binta" Breeze, Olive Senior, Linton Kwesi Johnson) join gifted younger voices (Kei Miller, Jacqueline Bishop, David Mills) in Kwame Dawes's eclectic selection. With poems as diverse as the island's people, this collection outpaces all the clichés. BT


Muhammad, By Ziauddin Sardar

Hodder Education, £7.99

As part of a new educational series, Sardar here produces so much more than mere passnotes on Islam's founder. His is a very contemporary take on the orphan Arab who came to lead a new faith, complete with an explanation of the offending passage in The Satanic Verses. The section on the Ummah – as legislated constitutionally by Medina's Jews, Muslims and others (and referring not to an Islamic brotherhood but a "unified community") –should be compulsory reading for Islamophobes and Al Qaeda alike. AA


You can order all these books and more at discounted prices from or call 0843 0600030