Tipping My Hat to Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters. Photograph: Murdo Macleod Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod
Sarah Waters. Photograph: Murdo Macleod Murdo Macleod/Murdo Macleod

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.

Paying Guests

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.

Night Watch

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.)

 

“Hiding in Plain Sight” by Nuruddin Farah

I wanted to like Nuruddin Farah’s most recent novel Hiding in Plain Sight.  I really did.  Farah, the prolific and distinguished Somali writer, is often spoken of as a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature.  (For more background on his life and work, click here.

photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian
photograph: Eamonn McCabe/The Guardian

I read his novel Knots several years ago and was struck by his feminism.  In that novel, the protagonist Cambara, a Somali woman who lives in Canada, returns to Somalia to take care of some business.  She and the other female characters struck me as the only ones in the novel with any sense.  The women took care of all the things that needed to be done, while the men were busy fighting each other and chewing khat.  If I had not known who the author was, I would have thought it was a woman.  Farah’s new novel Hiding in Plain Sight also has a woman as a main character.  Not only that, but the novel also portrays homosexuality as something which should not be condemned or punished. For any number of reasons, then, I was excited to read the book.

The novel opens with a focus on Aar, a sensitive Somali expat who is stationed in the UN office in Somalia briefly as a logistics officer.  Tragically, he dies when terrorists bomb the building he is in.  (This death happens in the beginning of the book, so I am not giving anything away here.)  The novel then switches perspective to Aar’s sister Bella.  The remainder of Hiding focuses on Bella and her attempts to deal not only with her grief but also to forge a new family with Aar’s children.  At the same time, she has to deal with Aar’s ex-wife Valerie, who abandoned him and his children ten years earlier to live with her female lover, Padmini.

One of the themes of the novel is the issue of sexual freedom.  Farah’s philosophy about sexuality seems to be summed up in this quotation:

“In Bella’s mind, freedom are a package, so the freedoms denied daily to millions of citizens in Africa or the Middle East are bound up with the lack of democracy in these parts of the world.  The choices individuals make in their private lives are just as important as the choices they make at the ballot box.  Public displays of affection, whether between a man and a woman or two men or two women, are but expressions of democratic behavior.  No one, not even the president of the country, should have the power and the authority to define love—including whom to love.”  (35)

Farah’s openness to sexual freedom is a laudable goal.  If that is his goal, though, I wonder why he chose to make Valerie (the lesbian mother of Aar’s children) such a nightmarish character.  She is selfish to the extreme, she has no understanding of the concept of gratitude, she is an alcoholic, and her emotions are completely erratic. I know that everybody is flawed, and there is no reason to paint a lesbian character as a saint.  Still, Valerie’s flaws were so extreme and her good qualities so few that I find her hard to accept as a believable character.

And while I do appreciate a male author who writes about strong female characters in a positive way, it seemed to me that Bella, the main character, was more of an idea (a strong, independent woman) than a believable, complex character.   She struck me as person without any emotional attachments or vulnerabilities, except for her attachment to her brother. I suppose Farah could be suggesting that she was TOO attached to her brother, which was why she found every other man lacking in comparison.  That could explain her inability (or unwillingness) to connect emotionally with anybody else, I suppose.  That changes, though, when she becomes attached to Aar’s children and wants to serve as their surrogate mother.

I imagine that at least part of Farah’s goal was to educate non-Somali readers about his war-torn country, especially in terms of its prevailing attitudes toward sexuality.  I think he was successful in that goal.  However, I think Hiding in Plain Sight worked better as an educational tool than as a successful novel.  The novel was written mainly from Bella’s perspective.  Ideally, readers would be able to get inside her head and see things the way she does.  However, often her thoughts do not sound at all realistic because Farah is using them to educate his readers rather than to portray a character.  For example, on page 135 of my edition, Bella thinks,

She knows that Aar, unlike most Somalis raised in the urban centers in the south of the country, had no issue with male homosexuality and couldn’t be bothered about lesbianism.  As for herself. . . she acknowledges that maybe she is not quite as advanced in her attitudes as she likes to think.  But with her three lovers, she knows that she cannot afford to throw stones at anyone in a similar position.  Many Somalis would think there was something wrong with her, would see her as worse than a whore, because no cash exchanged hands.”  (135)

If this were really a reflection of what Bella was thinking, she would not need to provide so much background explanation. The novel contains far too much of this type of didactic internal thoughts for more tastes.

Often the dialogue suffers from a similar weakness.  People in casual conversation, when they are not talking about food, often launch into mini-lectures on Important Subjects that also do not seem realistic.

For example, in one scene, Salif (a teenage boy) is upset with his mother Valerie, who abandoned them for ten years and now suddenly wants to be back in their lives.  His frustration is understandable, but the formality of his word choice strikes me as unbelievable:

“And let me add this, for what it’s worth, Mum.  You haven’t asked us anything about Dad, what he was like as a father to us after you left.   All you have done is create confusion in my head about the circumstances of his burial, urging me to act without even bothering to ascertain the legal and logistical implications.”  (138)

“Ascertain the legal and logistical implications?”  Really?  Does any teenage boy talk like that in casual conversation?

Overall, I would give the novel an “A” for good intentions, but a “C” for execution.  I could not get past the wooden writing style and unrealistic characters enough to get engaged in the story.

Having said that, I am not ready to give up on Nuruddin Farah.  I do plan to read some more of his earlier work.  If you have read his work, which book would you recommend?

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This post is my first entry in my own Around the World Reading Challenge.  This is my African entry.

It is also my fifth and final entry in the African Reading Challenge for 2014 hosted by kinna at Kinna Reads.  (It is late, I know.  Sorry!)  http://kinnareads.com/2014/01/14/2014-africa-reading-challenge/