When Master Georgie - George Hardy, surgeon and photographer - sets off from the cold squalor of Victorian Liverpool for the heat and glitter of the Bosphorus to offer his services in the Crimea, there straggles behind him a small caravan of devoted followers; Myrtle, his adoring adoptive sister; lapsed geologist Dr Potter; and photographer's assistant and sometime fire-eater Pompey Jones, all of them driven onwards through a rising tide of death and disease by a shared and mysterious guilt. Combining a breathtaking eye for beauty with a visceral understanding of mortality, Beryl Bainbridge exposes her enigmatic hero as tenderly and unsparingly as she reveals the filth and misery of war, and creates a novel of luminous depth and extraordinary intensity.
The leitmotif is summed up when the author speculates that, "Perhaps chance and destiny are interdependent, in that the later cannot be fulfilled without the casual intervention of the former". This is very much a story of the interconnection of chance and destiny and of how examples of perfectly ordinary lives–ordinary in the sense that similar scenarios are lived out in millions of replications–cross and influence each other; with the influences of unrequited love, betrayal, lust, obsession, truth, role-playing, identity and how, if one is not careful, the very definition of one's self becomes hostage to constructed images that provide poor support.
Bainbridge is a very fine writer. The story unfolds through the first-person narrative of each of the protagonists, except for George himself. It is an interesting and very well-written book where truths and knowledge are not just presented, but rather emerge, even obliquely, through contact, memory, and reconstruction, much as they do in life.
The characters were well set out and I liked the novella style where each character told part of a story. I liked all of the characters to some extent - although I was less keen on Potter, but I think that was how things were supposed to be. Master Georgie himself came across, to me, as very aloof. Although the title of the book, and probably the central character in so far as all the other characters evolved from him, we really didn't find out too much about him. He kept himself to himself. I think my favourite character was probably Jonesy.
All in all, it's spurred me on to read my other Beryl Bainbridge books.
first, a bit about the Crimean War (the backdrop for this book):
The Crimean War 1854 - 1856
In 1853, Russia sent troops to defend Christians within the Ottoman Empire. Within months, Russian troops had occupied parts of the Ottoman Empire and the Turks declared war. On 28 March 1854, looking to prevent Russian expansion, Britain and France (with Austrian backing) also declared war on Russia. In September 1854, Allied troops invaded the Crimea and within a month were besieging the Russian held city of Sebastopol. On 25 October 1854, the Russians were driven back at the Battle of Balaclava (including the foolhardy Charge of the Light Brigade). Eleven days later, the Battle of Inkerman was also fought (with high casualties on both sides). Poorly supplied and with little medical assistance ... the British troops suffered immense casualties - 4,600 died in battle; 13,000 were wounded; and 17,500 died of disease."
With this as the setting for Master Georgie, the book is divided into six "plates," or photographs, each capturing a specific moment in time as related by three separate narrators. Each is a focus on love and death, although through the story, you get the sense that the author is looking at the realities of war as set against the notion of the heroic history of war during the period of British empire. The main character is George Hardy, who tries to enlist in the war as a surgeon, but who is rejected due to his marital status. He signs up independently instead, and takes his family including wife, kids, brother-in-law Dr. Potter and his wife (George's sister Beatrice) and Myrtle, a woman in the employ of the Hardys who has some mysterious connection to George. Eventually the family is sent home after George is ordered to serve as doctor for the British in the Crimean theater, and the rest of the book is a look at the effects of war and the realities of life as viewed by those who are a part of it, even though their experiences and place in the scheme of things are largely different to one another.
It is a fine piece of writing, and should not be missed. Highly recommended.
Set in 1850's England, it documents the lives of a gay man, a sexually-assertive woman, and the bisexual man who loves them both as they struggle to maintain their self-respect and identities in a society in which homosexuality and sodomy are illegal, and women who admit to enjoying sex are labelled whores and ostercized by their peers. Although this is a historical novel, Bainbridge's instictive understanding of the human psyche and sympathy for her characters makes this book feel very contemporary. I felt as though it could be happening anywhere in the world at any time. It's a powerful expose of the human cost of enforcing a social expectation of sexual identity, and I recommend it whole-heartedly.
The final, dreadful destiny of the four main characters was very much influenced by chance - and Georgie's pigheadedness.
Extremely well written with beautiful language and strong imagery, I can well see why this novel was shortlisted for the Booker prize when it came out in 1998 (it was the novel [Amsterdam] by Ian Mcewan who took it that year; equally deserving in my opinion). Bainbridge was nominated no less than five times for the Booker and passed away from cancer without actually ever winning it. A shame, but all the more reason for me to want to discover more of her work now I have a vivid example of what an excellent writer she was.
The book is based around a Master George Moody a doctor and medical photographer and is told in 6 photographic plates by three very different characters, Myrtle the adopted orphan sister, Pompey Jones a street urchin turned photographer's assistant and George's brother-in-law Doctor Potter. Myrtle is the most devoted to Georgie despite him seemingly having no interest in women period, Pompey is more pragmatic and sees Georgie as a means out of the gutter with suggestions of a homo-sexual relationship and to a better life whereas Potter is the least attached of the three but like Pompey has no real money of his own so lives off Georgie's patronage.
Death is a constant throughout from the death of George's father in a backstreet whore's bed in London to the mud and filth of the Crimean War and we are certainly not spared some of the gory realities of War which are chiefly provided by Pompey. However, there are also lighter moments provided in the main by Potter usually at his own expense as he escapes the brutality of War into books, geology and daydreaming.
The use of three different narators is an interesting concept as you see the same occurance seen from varying standpoints much like real life and it also allows us to see snippets of Georgie's character bit by bit. The juxtaposition of differing human characters and characteristics the randomness of War is quite cleverly done. As is the view of life for the characters before the War in London and their Victorian values, in particular how the British combatants even took their wives and lovers with them to the Crimea before the actual War like it was some sort of holiday camp.
Unfortunately I was never really convinced by the character of Georgie himself or quite why everyone seemed so devoted to him. The brevity of the book certainly did not help IMHO. Overall an interesting read and it would not put me off reading any of Bainbridge's other works but probably not one that will live long in the memory