Sometimes I go through periods when I can’t find anything to read in my leisure time that is really captivating. That happened to me a few weeks ago. Nothing seemed to “click.” Desperate for something to grab my attention, I even turned to a best-selling thriller with no literary merit whatsoever. This thriller was appalling in its lazy, clichéd writing style and the way it wallowed in violence against women, seemingly because it sells books. I regret reading it, but that’s what literary desperation will do to you.
Then Sarah Waters came in to my life and I was saved! Waters is a Welsh writer well-known for her novels set in Victorian England and featuring lesbian protagonist, such as Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet. I had never read her before, but after reading The Paying Guests and The Night Watch, I plan to read all of her works.
The Paying Guests is about a young woman named Frances who lives in genteel poverty with her mother in post-World War I London. I often associate the 1920s with a frenzied atmosphere of parties and pleasure-seeking—the so-called “Jazz Age.” However, the tone is quite different in Waters’ novel, with its focus on reduced circumstances and austerity. Frances has lost her brothers and her father in the war (the father due to illness), and with the death of her debt-ridden father, the family’s economically comfortable lifestyle was gone forever.
In order to help pay the bills, Frances and her mother take in two boarders the “Paying Guests” of the title. Len and Lily Barber are a young married couple trying to create lives independent from their families. Frances becomes fascinated with this couple and her relationship with them changes her life forever.
I don’t want to give too much away in this post. Part of the pleasure for me in reading this novel came from watching unexpected relationships develop. I’ll just say that there is love, sex, secrets, and violence—the novel is certainly not lacking in plot developments.
What I most enjoy about Waters, though, are two things: her portrayal of complex characters with nuanced psychological observations, and her minute attention to period detail. In particular, I admire Waters’ subtle portrayals of the way characters negotiate class and gender expectations and boundaries. Waters is an academic by training who does extensive historical research before writing her novels, and it shows. I truly felt like I was in that house with Frances, desperately trying to make it—and herself–look clean and respectable with almost no money. I also think Waters is superb at showing the after-effects of World War I on individual characters and on London as a whole. Her characters are exhausted, but because of the seismic shocks that shattered English society, they also have the opportunity to reinvent themselves in ways they could not do before.
The second novel by Sarah Waters that I read is called The Night Watch. This was written earlier than The Paying Guests, and was also about the effects of war on English society. This war, however, is World War II. The Night Watch focuses on the stories of four main characters– Kay, Helen, Viv, and Duncan—during and after World War II. The complex characters and minute attention to period detail that I enjoyed so much in The Paying Guests are in this novel as well. We learn about the love affairs of these characters (three of whom are gay) as well as their attempts to find meaning and identity while their city is being destroyed by war.
The structure of The Night Watch is unusual. It is set in three different periods: 1947, 1944, and 1941. Rather than starting with 1941 and moving forward, Waters starts the novel in 1947 and moves backward. Readers are introduced to the main characters after the war is over. We do not yet know their stories, but we know that they are emotionally wounded, living lives that are pale imitations of what they had once hoped for. As the novel progresses, we learn more about the characters’ back stories and what brought them to their sad present circumstances.
I appreciate what Waters is trying to do with this backward technique. However, because of it, I was not quite as engaged with the characters as I had been with The Paying Guests. The combination of several different characters with the lack of “grounding” made it harder to connect with them. Some reviewers have noted that a second reading of the The Night Watch is required to really appreciate the power of this work. That makes sense to me, and I will probably do that.
Overall, I recommend Sarah Waters to anyone who is interested in finely drawn characters (many of whom are marginalized because of their sexuality), richly imagined period detail, and honest portrayals of erotic attraction.
(This post is my European entry in my Around the World Reading Challenge.)