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[676] Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

1velvet

” The truth was this: that whatever successes I might achieve as a girl, they would be nothing compared to the triumphs I should enjoy clad, however girlishly, as a boy. ” (Part I, Ch.5, p.123)

Sarah Waters’s debut novel is one that plays safe by following a conventional plot that begins in 1888. Tipping the Velvet focuses solely on homosexuality in fin de siècle England. In the nutshell, it’s an exuberant, lusty novel about a lesbian adventuress, at the mercy of fate, drifting through the underworld of Victorian London.

In the 1890s, the unassuming daughter of an oyster farmer in Whitstable, Nancy Astley attends the music hall performances, where she first falls in love with Kitty Butler, a comedy male impersonator at the show. That sarah has carefully selected her heroine’s background is both smart and strategic, for Waters never flinches in depicting Nancy’s serial encounters with sensitive body parts with allusions and innuendos pertaining to oysters.

After all, there are moments in our lives that change us, that discontent us with our pasts and offer us new futures. That night at the Canterbury Palace, when Kitty had cast her rose at me, and sent my admiration for her tumbling over into love—that had been one such moment. (Part II, Ch.10, p.250)

But of course, apropos of such conventional plot, Nancy wears her heart on her sleeves too easily. From performing duo to lovers, she is smitten. But Kitty cannot afford to lose her career—he chooses to protect her reputation by escaping into marriage to a man, and the abandoned Nancy, victim of gross betrayal by her only true love, finds work posing as a male street prostitute (or “a renter”) and undergoing undreamed-of sexual permutations and indignities as the kept mistress/boy toy of lustful rich widow Diana Lethaby.

To think of all the people you have known—and yet you have no friends. (Part III, Ch.18, p.430)

Waters’s debut is indeed entertaining, full of conflicting feelings—between the desperate pleasures to which Nancy’s drawn and her equally strong desire to become a regular girl. It brings out the universal theme in LGBT literature that one desires to be loved for what and who he/she is. One minor critique is waters’s hastening attempt to fit Nancy into all the different subsections of the homosexual population, for the Nancy reader gets to know in each section of the novel seems like a different person. But that said, I still find the circumstances by which Nancy finally finds true love are unpredictable and moving. Her search for identity and love is a raucous and passionate odyssey.

472 pp. Riverhead Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[401] If You Follow Me – Marlena Watrous

” It’s Japanese way. This is why I feel so nervous when you don’t follow rules, like breaking a gomi law. Do you understand? ” (23,319)

Marina and Carolyn are girlfriends. Fresh out of college, they decide to start a new life teaching English abroad. Japan seems to be the place to get lost. When they arrive in the remote city Shika, the experience is so much more than just culture shock, for all that they have read up on Japan doesn’t prepare them for the stopover town, where local people have no use for the English language. That their relationship would change irrevocably would never have entered their mind.

I am a temporary person, leading a disposable life. (16,232)

Behind the meek faces and politeness are rules that overwhelmingly preside over the Japanese, a people who swear by their traditions and social rules with utmost submission. Rules cover all aspects of life in this orderly country—even down to trash disposal. Marina constantly gets in trouble for throwing the wrong trash on the wrong day. Her social solecism becomes the talk of town, although neighbors remain at bay with their opinions. Her supervisor in school, Hiro Miyoshi, who feels responsible for his foreign subordinate beyond school duty, has taken up to writing letters of admonishment to spare personal humiliation. But eventually Hiro sparks romantic feelings for Marina, only to keep them to himself because work romance is frowned upon at in Japan.

Japanese enkai is a rare and precious chance to take off the tatamae. The work face. And show the honmae. The true face. (7,108)

For the sake of politeness one often wears a mask that inevitably undermines the true self. As Marina ventures to engage the rowdy students to study English, she also comes to terms with herself. The most engrossing part of the book, besides an autistic child, two boys settling their grudge with sumo match, is Marina’s reminiscence of her father, who took his life the year before she started college. Fragments of her father’s memories often preoccupy her thoughts. The passing episodes that perforate the book turn out to be the most touching moments of If You Follow Me. At one point I thought Marina’s reflection is more interesting than the whole Japan story and her relationship struggle with Carolyn. In a way, teaching abroad helps her move towards acceptance of the loss of her father.

I feel a pang of sadness, remembering that we had an exchange almost identical to this one on the first night that we slept together. Every ending is written in its beginning, but you can’t see it until you look back. (19,264)

Despite the comic turns of events and the lost-in-translation circumstances in which a word is misunderstood due to cultural difference, the debut novel is seeped in the tension of being the outsider in an intimate, nationalistic community and the joy in finding that human nature is just the same everywhere. In attempting to escape the bleak reality of her past, Marina finds her true self living in foreign land. The book is fun and honest, full of insights about life. You must love language and culture in order to fully appreciate this novel.

355 pp. Softcover. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]