Little, Brown, £16.99, 208pp. £15.29 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Girl In The Polka-Dot Dress, By Beryl Bainbridge

The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress could be described, glibly, as a "road novel", since most of the action takes place on the freeways of America as Harold Grasse drives his newly bought, second-hand camper from Maryland to California in the summer of 1968. The portly, bearded Harold's passenger is a young Englishwoman named Rose, who has come to the United States on a one-way ticket with the intention of leaving her dreary lodgings in Kentish Town for ever.

Both Washington Harold, as she calls him, and Rose are on a mission to find a certain Dr Wheeler, who has a rare talent for being elusive. For Rose, whose childhood was overshadowed by domestic violence, physical and verbal, Fred Wheeler, the kindly visiting American in a trilby hat, is nothing less than her saviour. He treated her with dignity and respect at an especially bad time in her blighted life, and her single, overriding ambition is to be reunited with him.

Harold sees the doctor somewhat differently, as a vain, heartless seducer, among other failings, and is possessed of an unspoken desire to exert revenge on him. Their search for the devilish redeemer is the starting-point for Beryl Bainbridge's final book, which was all but finished when she died of cancer in July last year.

It is a pleasure to record that The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress ranks among the finest of Bainbridge's fine works of fiction. The narrative is by turns sombre, terrifying and hilarious. Here is a typically laconic passage: "Mrs Shaefer opened the door to them. She was short and stout and wore a stained apron over a long black dress. Before she said hallo she swore at a man with a ponytail who was standing behind her. She called him a shithead. Rose felt at home. The man with the hair tied back gave Harold a bear hug."

That "Rose felt at home" is a masterly touch, a casual aside that's funnier for being true. A Bainbridge joke is always there to serve a moral purpose, not for the sheer sake of it, as in so much dire comic writing.

Rose is someone that only Beryl Bainbridge could have created. She is reminiscent of the girls in her early, partly autobiographical, novels - resilient against all the odds, sharp-witted when it suits her, annoyingly vague when she's distracted. The great success here is that she and Harold are two of a desperate kind, without their ever acknowledging the fact to one another.

Harold's mother was as satanic as Rose's father, and he is every bit as scarred by memories as she is. The one good thing to emerge from Harold's past is that a halfway decent stepfather left him some money with which to buy stocks and bonds - a financial comfort, at least. Rose has an abandoned baby, an abortion, and failed relationships to remember. Harold worships his departed wife Dottie, who had dozens of specious reasons not to have sex with him, resisting his every attempt to make love to her.

It has to be noted that sexual liaisons in Bainbridge's fiction are often abrupt, occasionally over before they have even begun. Rose has become an expert at lying back and thinking of England or whatever, as a particularly chilling scene brilliantly demonstrates.

Harold and Rose talk a lot, frequently at cross-purposes. We, as readers, share the pain they are unable to express. When revelations come, they are comically expressed: "The night before he'd commented on the way she drummed her fingers on her knees when listening to the radio and she'd said she'd been good at playing the piano, until her mother had battered her knuckles with a spoon whenever she struck a wrong note. That, he'd said, sure was a dumb way to encourage a love of music, and she'd retorted that piano lessons cost a lot of money, and anyway she preferred the ukulele."

Does Rose really prefer the ukulele, or is she jokingly covering up the disappointment she still feels at being denied those piano lessons? Again, a Bainbridge joke makes you laugh and then makes you think - a trait she first employed when she started writing 50 years ago. The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress is full of echoes - from The Dressmaker, from An Awfully Big Adventure, from Injury Time and Harriet Said, the creepiest and most upsetting novel she wrote. It's as if Bainbridge is investing the gauche but knowing Rose with a lifetime's experience of the essential mystery of human behaviour - the mystery that keeps great writers writing to the very end, even as they realise that it will remain unsolved, except by flashes of illumination.

This is not one of Bainbridge's historical reconstructions, despite the fact that the plot hinges on the assassination of Robert Kennedy. A girl in a polka-dot dress was seen running from the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after the six shots were fired. In the final chapters, a diminutive man in a yellow sweater with the ambition of becoming a jockey is introduced, and a crazy hypnotist tells Rose that his name is Sirhan. (Sirhan Sirhan was sentenced to life imprisonment for Kennedy's murder.)

The Girl in the Polka-dot Dress reads like a summation of Beryl Bainbridge's art. It is carefully constructed, as always, but there is a sense in which the author is returning to her roots, using the rich material of her early life in wartime Liverpool to devastating effect, and that Rose is the last repository for those feelings that first inspired her to abandon acting and become a novelist. The constant theme in Bainbridge's novels, the all-important concern, is death. The idea of extinction informs her fiction from the beginning to the end of her writing life. It's no wonder that she loved Dr Johnson, with his great fear of the beyond, and was moved by the plight of the passengers on the Titanic, and those idealistic birthday boys who perished in the Antarctic.

Although she has an absurdist's eye for the random vagaries of life, she never treats death as a laughing matter. She was fascinated by murders, particularly those that take place in living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms. Many years ago, I asked her about her lapsed Catholic faith and she replied that she was happier with hellfire and damnation than the tenets of the second Vatican council. She was the kindest and least judgmental person I have ever known, but I think she believed in the notion of sin and its terrible and terrifying consequences.

Paul Bailey's new novel is 'Chapman's Odyssey' (Bloomsbury)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor