The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

I actually bought this the day it came out. Then I discovered, like the review on Shiny New Books suggests, and as I found with Waters The Little Stranger, that I could only read it during the day. It is a brilliantly written, intense book, which is one of the few that really draws the reader in, but so much so that when the main character is depressed, I got depressed, or fearful, or whatever. I cannot work out how Waters achieves this effect. Maybe it is the detail of the domestic, the sense of the house almost being another character, but this book goes out of the house, into offices and other houses, which also take on the sense of being there. Not that she limits herself to a sense of place, as the characters in all their faults and speeches also become real.

Waters creates the sense of invasion by the paying guests, Lillian and Len, who move into the house which Frances and her mother have struggled to keep going since the death of both sons and husband. The brothers are mourned as many young men, as being killed at the Front during the First World War, whereas Mr. Wray senior was a spendthrift and buyer of fake antiques. Frances is a sad young woman, who regrets that she gave up her relationship with Christine in order to stay with her mother and keep up the family home, and her life has become dominated by the need to keep it clean, to follow the tracks of an unmarried daughter. The arrival of the beautiful Lillian, unsuited to her husband who works in an Insurance Office, challenges and changes the colourless house, with noise and sheer presence. Leonard is an invasive force, who walks through the kitchen, starts conversations, creates trouble in well behaved way.

The plot of the book means that it needs to be read to understand. The context of affection, even love, of anger, of fear, of despair, as well as emerging feelings for other characters, can only be understood in the context of slow reading. I think that this book needs time, and that is one of its main strengths, and perhaps it should be thought of as a big book like Wolf Hall. I enjoyed reading it; it is a strong, intense book, and I think it worked well throughout as it built to a climax which I thought was satisfying. It is a book which rewards concentration rather than half asleep reading. Waters is an incredible writer, and I have got so much from each book; a sense of history, people in difficult circumstances, the vulnerability of women in society. If you set out to read this, allow time and emotional energy.

Fingersmith – the book that the bookgroup liked!

When I first heard about the idea of World Book Night and being able to give away nearly fifty books, I was very chuffed. Even more so when I heard that the choices included Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. It is not the most obvious choice to make, but it was a book that I read years ago and remembered really well, for once not just because I had watched it on tv…

For those who have not read it, you have missed a treat. It opens with a Dickensian view of a thieves’ kitchen in London, describes a baby farmer by the name of Mrs Sucksby, and the reality of a public hanging, through the memory of Sue. Sue tells the story of her mother’s death as a criminal, the surprisingly warm and cosy life of thieves and forgers, and the arrival of Gentleman, who proves to be intent on working a con of life changing importance. It involves her becoming maid to the isolated and timid Maud, shut away with a fanatical uncle in a dark house in the country. Despite her initial fears, Sue grows to like and love Maud, almost reluctant to carry through the complex plan that will apparently see her becoming rich.

And there the plot description must end, because to reveal any more would spoil the tremendous twists and turns that this novel takes. Everyone is genuinely surprised by the developments in this book. Waters shows her talents as a plotter of stories so well here. She apparently intended to write a Victorian sensation novel from a modern perspective, which avoids pages of description (no Dickensian fog here), does allow certain coincidences, and includes strong characterisations. One review I read said that she does not miss a single telling detail, and this is a big book, but everything is to the point, without pages of descriptions which fill the pages if not the imagination. She will highlight a particular  behaviour, such as shining up jewels before fleeing the house, giving an image of the experience fence of stolen goods and the complete removal of all Maud’s possessions. The women are strong characters, damaged yet full of determination to survive. This book says much about the nature of womens’ lives and choices in the Victorian era, but not in a strident way, but a way that affects the reader, male or female.

I fairly flooded the village /town with copies of this book, and it would seem that on the whole people have enjoyed it. I must admit to being a little nervous how a book seen as challenging expectations would go down in a fairly conservative area, but the anecdotal evidence suggest that it has been an absorbing read for many people. I think that there is an unofficial competition to see how far a copy can go. So far I haven’t had to rehome any books; I hope that they won’t all turn up at the next charity bookstall.

The book group that discussed this book last week really appreciated this novel. I’m not sure what they were expecting, and they found it a big book to read, but they really enjoyed the plot, the characters and the story. They found the surprising twists very satisfying, and were intrigued by the characters, especially Sue and Maud. One lady pointed out that she knew something was going to go unexpectedly, as there was so much book left to read at a certain point. Some of the group had got hold of the dvd of the BBC version, which is true to the book as well as softly filmed. There was an emphasis on one or two elements which may have ensured viewers, and it is not fast moving drama, but I think beautifully acted. Well worth seeing, but read the book first or it really will spoil the surprise!

A bit of a gap between posts really, as I have been a little busy, but watch this space for some easy read series (which really will stretch your credibility, or mine) which I have been crashing through, as well as the brilliant (and readable) The Last Dance by Denys Blakeway – 1936, The Year Our Lives Changed. This is such a good book…

Giving away books…but some are off limits!

After writing about the excitement of a night of tv about books to come on Saturday, the blindingly obvious thing that I didn’t really mention was the idea of giving away a million books for World Book Night. I applied really early to become a book giver, thanks to a post by first alerting me to the idea. I was duly accepted to give away Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.

It’s a wonderful book, with so many plot twist and turns as well as an excellent set of characters. I really enjoyed it when I read it years ago, probably the best of the Victorian -novel -written -in -modern -day genre. (although The Crimson Petal and the White was very impressive).  It is one of the few books that actually startled me by a plot twist while drawing my interest and sympathy to the characters. More about this book to come.  I am intending to give my set of books away to the groups I belong to and some individuals who seem very interested (Daughter, flatmate and friends) rather than complete strangers, but they will go with instructions to be given away further to people who will enjoy them as well.

Despite what Husband may think, I do give away or lend out books. Maybe because the piles of books around the house don’t seem to shrink. In fact, sometimes the house feels a bit like a library. There have been times when I have asked for books back, which may explain why I try to remember where they have gone! It’s usually because I have been told to read a book for a group, and begrudge buying another copy. My Daughter is usually the recipient, so I know where to start asking.  She even got  Persephone book the other day because I found it in Oxfam and thought that it needed a good home.

Daughter doesn’t get to borrow any of my main set of Persephone books as they are quite literally a matched set.  Son Two suggested that I mention my collection occasionally and I’ve been reminded how much I enjoyed No.9, Few Eggs and No Oranges: The Diaries of Vere Hodgson 1940-45.

This is probably the biggest of the Persephone classics, being the wartime of diaries of a woman working for a charity in London.  It is the current book on the Persephone Forum and is quite an unusual book among all the novels. It is a faithful, honest and detailed record of what it was really like, and unlike many books of wartime diaries, some which I have mentioned here, the length and depth really demonstrate the character of the writer as well as just the events. It is a fascinating contrast to the Nella Last diaries that I have posted about, if only because they have not been edited by a stranger but merely sorted out for publication by Hodgson herself. They are so realistic, describing things like the mind numbing exhaustion of dozens of nights when sleep was disturbed. If you are a fan of wartime diaries, or Persephone books, or just an accurate record of an exciting period of history, it represents a very worthwhile investment. My Daughter will have to buy her own!