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[772] The Paying Guests- Sarah Waters


“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]

Reading Sarah Waters


With Sarah Waters I know I am in for a twist, but I’m not prepared for a suspense that has my heart in my mouth. I know it’s a historical fiction portraying the lives of women after the First World War in England—how women across all the social classes struggling to make ends meet as they lost the pillars of economic support to the war. The inhabitants of a genteel house in this novel are taking in tenants in order to support household expenses. The arrival of a young couple brings unsettling things to the house: lively music, colorful clothing, fun and laughter. But the ordinary co-existent lives have life-changing consequence that nobody would have expected. At this crucial turn of event, the book becomes a darker tale that really keeps me on the edge. Totally unexpected, so timely for Halloween—even my cat cannot keep his paws off this one!

[676] Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters


” 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]

[292] Affinity – Sarah Waters

” How will a person know, Selina, when the soul that has the affinity with hers is near it? . . . She will know. Does she look for air, before she breathes it? This love will be guided to her; and when it comes, she will know. And she will do anything to keep that love about her then. Because to lose it will be like a death to her. ” [211]

In Victorian England, on the heels of her recovery from a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior, an upper-class young lady, engages in visiting the women’s prison at Millbank as a gesture of her rehabilitation. Naturally an unhappy person who wants to find love, the passing of her father, a Renaissance art scholar whom she adores, hits her even harder. Struggling with her lack of power living at home with her society conforming mother, Margaret contrives to reach out.

It is as if every poet who ever wrote a lone to his own love wrote secretly for me, and for Selina. My blood—even as I write this—my blood, my muscle and every fibre of me, is listening, for her. When I sleep, it is to dream of her. When shadows move across my eye, I know them now for shadows of her. [304]

At Millbank, of all the friendships she has cultivated, Margaret is drawn to one Selina Dawes, a spirit medium who has been convicted of fraud and assault following a seance that ended with her mentor dead and a young woman traumatized. The morose Dawes, whose spiritual gifts Margaret initially doubts, quickly gains affection in the visitor’s heart. She is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina’s freedom—to a hugely surprising result.

We are the same, you and I. We have seen cut, two halves, from the same piece of shining matter. Oh, I could say, I love you—that is a simple thing to say . . . But my spirit does not love yours—it is entwined with it. Our flesh does not love: our flesh is the same . . . [275]

The narrative alternates between that of Margaret and Selina, the former being more thoughtful and psychological, the latter action-oriented, recounting the long and short of the medium’s sittings. The main story focuses on Margaret’s research as she seeks to uncover the mystery of Selina’s past. The novel is more haunting than creepy, establishing ambivalence over the notions of ghosts vs. madness. Affinity fine-tunes the exploration of psychological control, of emotional possession, and of the power of relationships. Although an absorbing book, the unexpected twist is less stunning than those of Fingersmith, and the atmosphere less creepy than The Little Stranger except for the one memorable passage on moving waxen finger.

351 pp. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[280] The Little Stranger – Sarah Waters

“This is a weirder thing even than hysteria. It’s as if—well, as if something’s slowly sucking the life out of the family . . . The whole bloody business baffles me! There are things that have happened, over at Hundreds, that I can’t explain. It’s as if the house is in the grip of some sort of miasma. ” [11:359-360]

Sheer chance has it that Dr. Faraday answers a house call at Hundreds Hall, where he once attended Empire Day festivity as a boy about 30 years ago, and re-acquaints with the Ayres, an old family family that is defeated by history. Despite signs of decay around the house and an economizing lifestyle, the Ayres live in dignity within their limited means. Looming beneath the peace and quiet of Hundreds Hall is a charged creepiness that a new housemaid first addresses when the doctor is summoned to her sick bed. She has feigned illness to be rid of her duties at night.

But at night, I’m all on me own. There in’t a sound! I have horrible dreams . . . And it wouldn’t be so bad, but they make me go up and down that set of old back stairs. There’s so much corners, and you don’t know what’s round ’em. I think I shall die of fright sometimes. [1:12]

“Slowly, bit by bit, through snippets of events that initially bear neither relation nor premonition to what is to follow, Waters has set up a mood such that something uncanny is at work. It seems a strange coincidence that Betty claims Hundreds has a diabolical thing in it should have found in Roderick’s delusion. The ex RAF is attached to the delusion that he produces a logical-seeming fear hat the evil force will rid of everyone in the house.

Because what he had to do now, he said, was watch. He had to watch every object, every corner and shadow in the room, had to keep his gaze moving restlessly from one surface to another. For he knew that the malevolent thing which he tried to hurt him before was still in there with him, waiting. [5:155]

Stress and tension elevate as inexplicably frightful incidents proliferate in both audible and visual forms. The unaccounted for rat-tat-tat thumping leads Caroline Ayres to discover some aged childish doodles on the wall behind a dresser. Abstract idea of some outlandish, diabolical being becomes concrete evidence as each inhabitant of the house falls prey to a mysterious force, hallucination, noises—anything but a ghost, as nobody mentions ghost, even though all the indications suggest otherwise. Nerves are on edge.

And it was only when that was done, she told me, that the queerness of the whole thing began to strike her. She had been unafraid before, but now the taps, the discovery of the marks, her mother’s response, the current silence: she thought it all through, and felt her courage begin to waiver. [9:291]

The Little Stranger is not a traditional horror story, whether the ravenous shadow-creature does exist on its own or spawns from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house. It is a psychological thriller that deals with social class as it witnesses a gentry family that, instead of advancing with time, retreats to decadence. It also ponders the dynamics of human relationships: of the complex ties between parent and children, of the bonds between siblings, and of human yearnings. Any comparison of this novel to Fingersmith is irrelevant, as they are in totally different sub-genre. The plot of Fingersmith is enriched and sustained by many twists; whereas the novel in question is highly atmospheric, building upon snippets of information that become significant later.

528 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[267] Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

” I suppose I really seemed mad, then; but it was only through the awfulness of having said nothing but the truth, and being thought to be deluded. ” [14; 416]

You know it’s a great book when you can’t seem to disclose even a snippet of the plot without it’s being a spoiler. Fingersmith is such a book. Set in Victorian England, 1862 to be exact, Fingersmith captures the teeming life that thrives underneath the various repressions of that era. The orphaned Susan Trinder is raised by Mrs. Sucksby, den mother to a family of thieves, or fingersmiths. Mr. Ibbs, the father figure, operates a shop that handles stolen goods from thieves.

We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. [1; 7]

…there was not much that was brought to our house that was not moved out of it again. There was only one thing, in fact, that had come and got struck—one thing that had somehow withstood the tremendous pull of that passage of poke—one thing that Mr. Ibbs and Mrs. Sucksby seemed never to think the price to. I mean of course, Me. [1; 11]

To repay their kindness, at the urging of one unscrupulous man, ironically named Gentleman, Sue jumps at the chance to make her fortune and gets involved in a scam to win an elderly bookish man’s fortune. The key to the scheme’s success is to encourage the old man’s niece, also an orphan, into a marriage. This is where the novel, which Sue Trinder and Maud Lilly take turn to narrate, splits into twisting paths, revealing long held secrets and hidden strife. The multiple subtexts, the chicanery, and plot twist completely turn the story on its head.

We were thinking of secrets. Real secrets, and snide. Too many to count. When I try now to sort out who knew what and who knew nothing, who knew everything and who was a fraud, I have to stop and give it up, it makes my head spin. [4; 110]

So though, as I have said, I was sorry for her. I was not quite sorry enough to want to try and save her. I never really thought of telling her the truth, of showing up Gentleman as the villain he was . . . [5; 136]

To complicate matter further, the two women fall in love with each other, if there is any truth coming out of the hoax, during the intricate dealings. Waters has downplayed the romance, focusing on the layers of secrets to be revealed carefully. The ingénue of Fingersmith lays in her execution, juxtaposing facts and events that would otherwise contribute to an ordinary tale of chicanery and betrayal.

And so you see it is love—not scorn, not malice; only love—that makes me harm her. [10; 285]

In Fingersmith, the approach to the truth is so convoluted that appearances in one case have pointed one way while the truth lay all the while unsuspected in another direction. On top of the entangled fate of the two orphaned women, Waters surrounds their lives with characters who are unforgettable—neither wholly good nor evil. Whether it is Mr. Ibbs’ dealing with pickpockets for the stolen goods, Mrs. Sucksby’s unlicensed nursing of orphaned infants, Sue’s being part of the scam to make her fortune, the intention is to amount some good. Their actions often display a mix of self-interest and surprising altruism. Good to the last page.

548 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]