“And as Frances watched . . . something odd began to happen to her. First her heart started to flutter, then she felt a srt of giving any, around it: a caving in, like the slither of sand through the waist of an hour-glass. It was as if her blood, her muscles, her organs, were steadily dissolving . . . Now Frances’s face was tingling as if growing numb . . . She wanted to be sick.” (Ch.14, p.470)
In postwar 1922 London, the widowed Mrs. Wray and her spinsterish daughter, Frances, have been obliged to admit lodgers out of necessity due to the straitened poverty. Into their genteel south London house moves a young, gaudy couple with their gramophone and colorful clothing. The new living situation signifies the changing social dynamics brought forth by the war. One gets the sense that Waters uses the domestic novel to grapple with the intricacies of a broken civic order and the reconfiguring of gender and social roles—until the focus shifts to a more personal, intimate level.
The arrival of the brash Barbers has unsettled the Wray household. There is persistent undercurrent undercurrent of class awkwardness and intergenerational conflict. Frances reflects that she will never be used to the noises but she needs the money to drive out of debt. Waters captures very neatly Mrs. Wray’s pained denial of the extent to which she has come down in the world; but this embarrassing reality manifests in Frances’s daily weariness and frustration at menial work around the house. The Barbers’ intrusion, which almost feels like an intrusion, depicts such dismantling of social barrier, as people traditionally separated by money and status find their lives intermingling under one roof. But the delicate domestic tension soon gives away to more personal and intimate entanglement. Frances, still smarting from the collapse of her wartime love affair with a fellow suffragette, is drawn to the lively Lilian Barber, who reveals that her marriage is less than happy.
Every day we slip a bit further into it . . . We’d somehow got into the habit of spending time together almost in secret. It’s what we do with the time that’s changed. (Ch.7, p.238)
The developing romance, to my slight dismay, is an unexpected departure from what Waters has set out to do at the beginning of the book. The one thing that reminds me of the social constraint theme is the women’s invisibility, which is crucial to the twists and turns of the ensuing soap opera. No one appreciates the lesbian subtext of the situation; and the pressure that remorse and moral responsibility on their love affair is unleashed with exquisite pathos. Maybe Waters wants to be sarcastic, in creating this extreme outcome, about how society is blind to the same-sex love. The book is simmering with suspense, and one can feel the full of fear and anxiety in these women.
566 pp. Riverhead/Penguin. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]