The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress
by Beryl Bainbridge
Little, Brown & Company pp208
ISBN: 13-978-0316728485

Dame Beryl Bainbridge was putting the finishing touches to her 19th novel, The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, at the time of her death in July 2010. The novel, which was based on a real-life journey Dame Bainbridge had made across America in 1968, is about the mystery girl reputed to have been involved in the assass-ination of Robert Kennedy in June 1968.

One of the grand dames of the UK ’s literary scene, Dame Bainbridge was a prolific writer whose short, dark comic novels – which often included a streak of tragedy – earned her five short-listings for the Man Booker Prize and made her a two-time winner of the Whitbread Award.

Dame Bainbridge’s literary career can be divided into two. Her earlier novels drew on her own life, including her upbringing in Liverpool, her time working as an actress, and her life in Camden in the 1960s. Her historical novels were based on communal Britain.

She was a perseverant writer – even as she lay in considerable pain, on what she had been told would be her deathbed in hospital, Dame Bainbridge was still trying to dictate the last few pages of her final novel.

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress is yet another story fuelled by Dame Bainbridge’s meeting with an unsuitable chap – a man whom she came to loathe as the car made its way across the US prairies.

The novel, set in Kentish Town and downtown Baltimore, tells the story of a young woman called Rose who is adrift in the United States at the time of the assassination of Robert Kennedy. As the story in the novel goes, when she was only aged 12 Rose was responsible for a terrible act. This was witnessed by Dr Wheeler, who kept silent for seven years before departing to America.

Rose then meets another American, Harold, in rainswept London who also knows Dr Wheeler and has his own reasons for wanting to find him. Harold’s wife had had an affair with Dr Wheeler and committed suicide when it ended. Harold and Rose join forces and travel across America in search of the elusive Dr Wheeler, whom Rose credits with rescuing her from a terrible childhood, and against whom Harold nurses a silent grudge.

The odd couple – Rose, a damaged child of grey post-war Britain, and nervous, obsessive Harold – end their journey at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the night of Kennedy’s fateful press conference. On that night Rose is wearing her favourite polka dot dress.

During the investigation into the assassination of Kennedy in 1968, several witnesses recalled seeing a girl in her 20s wearing a polka dot dress in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. She was never found.

Dame Bainbridge skilfully merges this infamous sighting with her story of the girl in The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. We also see how both Rose and Harold struggle to deal with familial and cultural forces of alienation, deprivation, abuse and rejection.

The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress is a tale of murder and retribution, and is underpinned by the author’s trademark and uniquely dark comedy. It is a brief, tightly-knit novel in which the irrational infiltrates a world of drab events and hopeless existences quiver with mysterious threat.

• Ms Montanaro has a PhD in British Surrealism and Psychoanalysis from the University of Edinburgh.

This book is available at Word for Word.