The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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This is the latest novel from prize winning Sarah Waters. A taut and nail biting thriller it explores the effect that the arrival of two paying guests, Leonard and Lily Barber, have on the household of Frances Wray and her mother. it is 1922 and ,reeling from the after effects of World War One, the upper-middle class Wrays find themselves in reduced circumstances and forced to take in lodgers ‘ from the clerk class’.

The novel was published on 28th August and the Stylist magazine hosted a special book club event with Sarah Waters to discuss the book. At the outset Waters conceded that this was a very difficult book to discuss without giving away spoilers and so ,rather than a  book review  , I have decided to post a review of that evening in which she talked about her influences and her writing process.


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The event was held at the very upmarket Rosewood hotel in Holborn , central London. In fact, by coincidence, this building used to be the Pearl Assurance offices, which is where Leonard Barber goes to work each day and Waters also explained that right next door at that time was the Holborn Music Hall where Frances and her friend Christina go for a night out during the course of the story.

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Waters explained that she is interested in London’s history and enjoys walking through the city looking at buildings and landmarks. In fact, the characters she feels closest too in her books are those who walk around London on routes she takes and notice what she notices. She has always been fascinated by Champion Hill in Camberwell, where Frances and her mother live ,as it is a little island of upper-middle class gentility in a predominantly working class sea.

 She chose the early Twenties to set the novel as this was a particularly fascinating period in which society was still very much living in the shadow of WW1. There were a lot of challenges to the structure of everyday life, particularly for women. She is also interested in the ability in families not to say things to each other and to ignore or talk round difficult subjects.

In order to start thinking herself into the period she read the novelists of the day – Virginia Woolf, D H Lawrence and Aldous Huxley. These helped her to get a sense of period but all these writers chose more upper class and bohemian  characters  whilst she knew she wanted to write about ordinary peoples lives. The best window into the every day lives at this time, she found, were the celebrated murder trials of the day. In particular Notable British Trials contains court transcripts in which you can hear the commonplace voices of the time and get an idea of how regular households were arranged.

Next she came up with the house, which is almost a character in itself,and then used  the classic scenario of a stranger arriving to upset things. She read newspapers from that period as well as cookery books and fashion magazines to get a sense of the smells and the sounds of the times. The way that people negotiate personal space and how that has changed over time has always fascinated her. In The Paying Guests there are a lot of half heard conversations through walls and chance meetings on the stairs.

The first half of the book crackles with unresolved feelings . Waters explained rather self-mockingly  that she had always thought the URST ( unresolved sexual tension) of romance fiction was not a device she would employ. She then read us an extract starting at p191 in the novel in which the URST positively leapt off the page. In the second part of the novel, however, there is a change of mood when duty and guilt begin to complicate passion and Waters found herself searching for new ways to describe fear.

Waters was asked to name her top three books. Firstly she chose Anna Karenina which figures in her novel as both Lily and Frances become fascinated with the story. In Waters view this is often pigeon-holed as a difficult book when in fact it is more of a soap opera, funny and tragic at the same time. Next she recommended Virginia Woolf’s diaries. These are very witty and insightful, they were very much on her mind when writing The Paying Guests. Finally she chose Katherine Mansfield’s letters. She thought the letters were in fact better then Mansfield’s fiction which, in her view , is a little uneven. They provide an intimate look at the fascinating life of an unusual personality.

As a writer, Waters is extremely disciplined. She aims to write 1,000 words per day and she always makes herself do it. Until the run up to publication, she approaches her writing as a job and works from about 8.30 am to 4.00pm Monday to Friday. Some of that time will be writing and some will be research which can just be reading a novel from the period or a newspaper. Towards the end of a book, however, the writing becomes all consuming. At the end of this novel she found all she was doing was writing and watching episodes of Breaking Bad ! She is now on a writing break and taking the time she read, think and go to the theatre and exhibitions.

Her advice to any aspiring writers in the audience was simple………..just do it! Don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you must carve out a space for it. Whilst a first novel is often a labour of love you have to approach continuing like a job. She revealed that she always feels awful on a Monday morning and has long period of agony and frustration.

She was asked about her favourite of her own novels. She found that a very difficult question to answer . Tipping The Velvet had been very good for her and she enjoyed the TV adaptation in which she appeared as an extra. She re read it recently, the only one of her books she has re read , and found it to be ‘ a complete mess’.Perhaps her favourite is The Paying Guests because she found it more difficult to write than any of the others . In fact the first half was rewritten countless times. There were several scenes that caused particular difficulty, some were excluded altogether in the final draft and some although kept she still does not feel entirely happy with. In the original draft, she revealed, there was lots more sex but this she found slowed the narrative down. Its important to her for a novel to tell a story and her very favourite writers are ones that can create suspense and intrigue with a serious agenda……Daphne du Maurier and Patricia Highsmith came to mind.

This a was a fantastic evening. Sarah Water was an engaging and witty guest. In my own view The Paying Guests is her best novel yet full of suspense and surprises.

My thanks to Susan de Soissons and Virago for the advance copy.

 

Book Review :Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe

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Nina Stibbe’s first book, Love Nina, was an hilarious memoir of her experiences as a nanny catapulted from rural Leicestershire into the literary circles of North London in the 1980s. In Man At The Helm she has turned her comic talents to fiction, albeit with a dash of personal experience.

It is 1970 and Lizzie and her sister find developments at home a little bewildering after her father leaves following a fight :

‘Mother will go 100 per cent crazy on her own,’ said my sister. ‘Let’s pray he comes home soon and they don’t split up.’

‘They won’t split up.’ I said.

‘I bet they will. They have nothing in common – they’re chalk and cheese,’ said my sister. I didn’t agree. I thought they were just different kinds of cheese (or chalk).’

To set this conversation in a context you have to understand that divorce in 1970 was not yet commonplace in the UK. The Matrimonial Causes Act, which introduced the concept of a ‘ no fault divorce’, was not enacted until 1973.

Just a few years after this fictional conversation takes place, I came home from a school trip to Germany to have my sister whisper to me in our bedroom at night that things had been pretty awful and she thought Mum and Dad would have a divorce. My reaction was exactly the same as Lizzie’s – I told her not to be so stupid. It was perfectly normal for parents not to get on.

In fact Lizzie’s sister, just like my own, is perfectly right and so begins the family’s descent into chaos. They become a single parent family , headed up by her shell-shocked mother and regarded by all with suspicion . Lizzie’s sister is convinced that the children will end up wards of court sent to a children’s home their only hope is to begin a quest to find their mum another husband – a man at the helm.

The book is full of period detail. I laughed out loud at references to the feather cut ( yes, I have some hideous school photos of that) and also Chi-Chi the panda. It was mention of My Learn To Cook Book by Ursula Sedgwick that really had me chuckling. This formed part of my own childhood library. My sister still has our copy and our disastrous attempts to make, I think, Apple Crumble directed by the cartoon dog and cat led to a ban on using the cooker when my mother was out at work.

Lizzie is an astute observer of family life and relationships. She writes ruefully about having to agree with her big sister even when she isn’t  too worried about the issue herself :

‘Except that what bothered her bothered the rest of us in the end.’

Her mother had some early and fleeting success as a playwright before getting married. In the turmoil of a marriage breakdown, her mother turns to writing as an outlet for anger and frustration. Her mini plays, plotting the sad trajectory of her post divorce life and acted by the children,  provide some very funny episodes in the book, almost a Greek Chorus ….Lizzie, however, has some mixed feelings :

‘Clever, sometimes funny and always worldly – as good as anything you saw on telly or onstage except perhaps Terence Rattigan, who didn’t do as much explaining and yet revealed so much. Our mother did rather spell things out and her characters occasionally broke the fourth wall, which I considered cheating.

This is more than just a farcical romp through the 1970s, Lizzie is a wonderful comic creation. She vocalises  a child’s bewilderment at the collapse of the world around her,  coupled with the casual ,although usually unintended, cruelty of adults .Lizzie serves to remind us that children are perfectly calibrated barometers of family life.

Lizzie’s voice is poignant , brave and totally authentic. My only criticism would be that she does, at times,  does display a worldly knowledge beyond her supposedly 9 years.

 Man At The Helm is published on 28th August. I am very grateful  for the review copy from Nina Stibbe and Penguin……but I am definitely buying   two more copies, one for my sister and one for another friend of my youth who I know this will speak to.

 

 

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

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We Are Not Ourselves is Matthew Thomas’ debut novel. Although not yet published, it has already won him a nomination for The Guardian First Novel Award as well as, reputedly, a million dollar book deal.

The title comes from King Lear :

We are not ourselves

When nature, being oppressed, commands the Mind

To suffer with the body

This is a very difficult book to review without giving spoilers.

It tells the story of Eileen Leary née Tumulty. Born in 1941, Eileen is the daughter of Irish immigrants who lone to escape her dull background and becoming part of the American Dream.

One New Year’s Eve she meets Ed Leary whose quiet scholarship and gentle manner seem to offer her all she has dreamed of. Years later Eileen thinks back to their first meeting :

‘She thought of the night they’d met, the way he’d leaned in to kiss her when the hour struck. She’d been waiting for him to do it all night. They’d been on the middle of the dance floor, surrounded by hundreds of couples. When he kissed her, she experienced a sensation she’d heard described a thousand times but always dismissed as malarkey: that everyone around had disappeared, and it was just the two of them. And now it really was the two of them, and everyone had more or less disappeared.’

The book follows the course of their marriage and so ,through Eileen’s eyes, the history of middle class America in the latter part of the 20th Century.

Marriage doesn’t bring Eileen all she had hoped for. Ed is not ambitious enough for her and has no aspiration to move away from their working class  neighbourhood even as the area changes around them. Throughout their lives together, Eileen is forced to work long hours to keep the family afloat.

This is a grand , sweeping American classic which has brought the inevitable comparisons with Jonathan Franzen. It is not, however, an ‘issues’ book despite what you may read in other reviews or press releases. Thomas certainly takes a cold, hard look at the American healthcare system as ill health descends on the family :

‘ And if she got sick without benefits, she’d be looking at losing everything. She’d worked her whole life and diligently socked away, from the age of fifteen on, 10 percent of every pay check she’d ever gotten, and still her family’s fortunes could be ruined overnight because the American healthcare system – which she’d devoted her entire professional career to navigating humanely on behalf of patients in her care, and which was organised in such a way as to put maximum pressure on people who had the least energy to handle anything difficult- had rolled its stubborn boulder into her path.’

The novel is more a ‘snapshot’ of ordinary family life and the everyday heroics of individuals in the face of life’s challenges.Although as the book runs to to 640pp perhaps snapshots a misleading description. The writing is sensitive and Thomas convincingly inhabits Eileen’s mind. At the end of her marriage Eileen reflects :

‘She’d never remarry : This was life: you went down with the ship. Who was to say that wasn’t a love story?”

The final section of the book shifts the point of view to Connell, the couple’s only son. He has struggled to live up to the expectations of his mother and his father as well as to meet the particular challenges the family’s circumstances have presented. His father’s tribute to him in the final passages of the book is a heartbreaking and powerful piece of writing that had me sobbing aloud.

We Are Not Ourselves is published on 28th August. Thank you to Simon and Schuster and NetGalley for the review copy.

Testament Of Youth and Grey Ghosts And Voices

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In the lead up to the centenary of  the start to WW1 I agreed to (re) read A Testament Of Youth along  with some other bookish Tweeters.

I first read the book in 1979 ( I know, say nothing!) following the fabulous BBC adaptation which was a huge hit at the time.

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As a young woman hoping to go to University myself ( the first in my family), Vera’s story really spoke to me.

Testament Of Youth is a reminiscence written in 1933 by Vera Brittain, the mother of the politician Shirley Williams. It tells the story of Vera’s wartime service during World War 1 and the tragic fate of her generation.

The book opens before the start of the War and we find Vera desperate to get an education and attend university. She has encountered hostility to this from her parents although it is naturally assumed that her younger brother, Edward, will of course be sent away to school and then go to Oxford.

Vera was an early feminist and a socialist and she vividly recounts the stifling atmosphere of middle class life in Buxton where the family lived.

‘To me provincialism stood, and stands,for the sum-total of all false values; it is the estimation of people for what they have, or pretend to have, and not for what they are. Artificial classifications, rigid lines of demarcation that bear no relation whatsoever to intrinsic merit, seem to belong to its very essence, while contempt for intelligence, suspicion and fear of independent thought, appear to be necessary passports to provincial popularity.’

She longs for an education and to become involved in intellectual and political life but finds that for women society allows very few options.

‘ It feels sad to be a woman!’ I wrote in March 1913 -the very month in which the Cat And Mouse Act was first introduced for the ingenious torture of militants.’Men seem to have so much more choice as to what they are intended for.’

Vera achieves her dream and goes up to Oxford in October 1914. Over the summer she had fully expected to be there at the same time as her brother, Edward, and his friend ,Roland Leighton ,with whom she has a growing romance. At the outbreak of war both Edward and Roland sign up and so Vera goes to Oxford alone.

With all those dear to her away serving, academic life seems seems increasingly irrelevant to her and in 1915 she defers her studies to become a VAD or volunteer nurse seeing service in London, Malta and France.

Vera and Edward in Uniform

Vera and Edward in Uniform

At the end of the war, Vera returns to Oxford only to find that her once cherished ambitions feel empty to her now and she has little in common with her fellow students who have not experienced war service. She find she is also one of the ‘surplus’ women for whom no husbands or work can now be found in Britain. She reads a newspaper article that suggests such women should seek work abroad to better their prospects and writes to a friend ;

Personally I haven’t the least objection to being superfluous as long as I am allowed to be useful, and though I shall be delighted for any work I may do to take me abroad, it will not be because I shall thereby be enabled the better to capture the elusive male.

Vera finds solace through her work lecturing for the League of Nations and in her friendship with the novelist Winifred Holtby.

The book is divided into three parts with each section beginning with a contemporary poem or quote. Part Two opens with an extract from a poem by May Wedderburn Cannan which reminded me that at about the same time as I read Testament Of Youth I had come across May Cannan’s memoir in our local library.

Grey Ghosts and Voices has long been out of print but I managed to track down a second hand copy and read it as a companion piece  to Vera Brittain.

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May Wedderburn Cannan came from a similarly middle class home to Vera. Her family was , however, a more intellectual one. Her father was head of the Oxford University Press and a close friend of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the novelist and academic.

May’s education was as intermittent and slapdash as Vera’s but she is less of a feminist and more accepting of the status quo.

WW1 offers May an opportunity to enter the world of work that was previously denied her. She serves as a Red Cross volunteer nurse and works briefly at a canteen for the troops in France behind the front-line . She then starts to work for her father at OUP to take the place of male employees now called up to fight.

As the war runs on she longs to get back to France and she ends the war in Paris using her office skills to work for British Intelligence.She relishes the freedom that working gives her and enjoys earning her own living.

Just as the war ends, Bevil Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur’s son, arrives in Paris to propose to her. They had known each other from childhood but their whirlwind romance in Paris really captured my teenage imagination. May returns to England to prepare for her marriage.

Sadly May’s wedding never takes place. Weakened by four years in the trenches, Bevil dies of pneumonia in February 1919 leaving May staring into a future that seems void.

Her postwar years are very close to Vera’s. She struggles to find a meaning to her life and also feels alienated from the younger generation who did not experience the war.

She too suffers the stigma of being one of the ‘surplus’ women but is determined to stay in work and earn her living. During one interview she is asked rather snootily if she has a degree :

I thought, ”Well, I’ve lost it”‘ and I thought “surplus two million”; and I collected my bag and my gloves and I looked at them all sitting round that long table and I said “If I had got a Degree it would have been between 1914 and 1918 and I preferred to be elsewhere. And what is more Gentlemen” – I got up now and I pushed back my chair and made them a little bow-“I still prefer to have been elsewhere”

She gets the job!

May’s story is perhaps more conventional than Vera’s but it was great to reconnect with it after all this time. The title of the book is a quote from one of her moving poems summing up her feelings as the war ends and she finds herself alone :

Now we must go again back into our world

 

 Full of grey ghosts and voices of men dying,

And in the rain the sounding of Last Posts,

And Lovers’ crying;

Back to the old, back to the empty world  

 

This First World War reading was an emotional journey but one I am glad I made both books are well worth the effort and the tissues. Thank you to Claire from claire.thinking.blogspot.co.uk for coming up with the idea.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

Book Review :The Incarnations by Susan Barker

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As Wang Jun drives his taxi through the streets of Beijing in the run up to the 2008 Olympics, he reflects on how busy the city has become.

‘The rush-hour crowds disappear into the subway; the masses, shrieking into cell-phones, treading on heels and fighting their way through the scrum. Stalled in traffic, Wang watches them, his head throbbing with the engine. There’s no harmonious society, he thinks, only the chaos of people with crooked teeth and no manners, trampling on each other.’

Life in China has changed completely over his lifetime but Wang’s past is about to catch up with him.

Wang lives with his wife, Yida, and young daughter, Echo, in a cramped flat. He is virtually estranged from his father. Wang Hu was once a powerful party official but is now a helpless invalid cared for by the malicious Lin Hong, his former mistress but now his second wife.

Wang begins to find mysterious letters planted in his taxi cab. We are then taken on a journey from 7th Century  through the Opium Wars right up to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s as the shadowy correspondent tells the tales of seemingly unrelated lives.

Wang Jun’s own tragic story following the death of his mother also unravels and he finds himself unable to to escape from his past and his first love.

This book was an unexpected delight. Barker offers us a window into what is still a closed world. Her picture of life in modern China is fascinating. Despite its nominal communism, the disparity between those who have and those who have nothing is wide and growing. Wang and his co-driver, Baldy Zhang, struggle to make a living , their flats are dingy and overcrowded whilst the new elite drive fast cars and live in opulent apartments.

‘The darkness and corruption is everywhere, at every level of society. Greed is the beating heart of our people, and morality is overruled by the worship of money. Anyone can be bought and sold, Driver Wang. Even your own wife.’

She also captures the arbitrary brutality of the Cultural Revolution with its Orwellian language and ferocious Red Guards spreading fear throughout the country.

 A third-year girl called Shaoli shrieks the headteacher’s crimes through a loud speaker: ‘Headteacher Yang Attempted to Overthrow the Communist Government and Take Over The Military! Headteacher Yang Attempted to Assassinate Chairman Mao!”

Headteacher Yang is stony faced and unrepentant. Shaoli calls over Teacher Wu and tells him to slap the head teacher. When he refuses a second year girl beats him with a broom.. They call over Teacher Zhao and, scared of being beaten too, she slaps Headteacher Yang to loud cheers. “Harder! Harder!’ shout their former former pupils. Shaoli orders Headteacher Yang and Teacher Zhao to knock heads, and they headbutt each other like rams. “Harder!” Shaoli shouts through the loudspeaker, like a ringmaster in a circus of humiliation and cruelty.

Keen to lead the Anti-black Gang Capitalist rally, you take the loudspeaker from Shaoli, punch your fist in the air and shout,”The iron fist of the proletariat will crush the enemies of Chairman Mao! Heads will roll! Blood will flow! But we will never let go of Mao Zedong Thought! Long Live the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution!”

The Incarnations could have read like an informative and well researched history of China but nothing could be further from the truth. Barker has created a set of characters who jump off the page and Wang’s heartrending story is sensitively told. It is hard to say too much more without spoilers …….I definitely recommend reading it.

The Incarnations is published by Doubleday and thank you to Susan Barker for sending me a copy.