“The Barbers had said they would arrive by three. It was like waiting to begin a journey, Frances thought.”
SARAH Water’s writing career follows the trusted big crimo formula. She does not have a central hero/ine but her themes are distinct. You know what you are getting. A one girl crusade to offset the heterosexuality of Mills and Boon. Girls to the fore, skiving their cares away. A carefully prepared period backdrop. The conversation in the publisher’s office might have been: Can you write the same book again? But different? Yes, another 600 pages, please. Waters crimes though are not to be solved but rather committed with awe, angst, glee.
Her Little Stranger was listed as number 45 in the flakey BBC poll of the best English novels, sandwiched between Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Umm.
Her new novel is a forensic analysis of a passionate affair that barely overlooks a heart flutter or a floorboard creaking. It won the Sunday Times fiction book of the year.
Her singular skill is to let her story unravel through her characters so the plot unfolds in a present tense. Her period is picked off with timely adjectives…pluck… queer…a fizz of impatience… leisurely yodelling yawns.
As you might argue about Fifty Shades of Grey, it is firstly a love story, yes between women but not so you would say it was seedy: “How well she filled her own skin. She might have been poured generously into it, like treacle”. Waters can write.
Or this early meeting on the stairs. “Her kimono parted as she landed, exposing more of her night-dress, and giving an alarming suggestion of the rounded, mobile unsupported flesh inside.”
We are on the cusp of the end of world war 1. There is a sense of, as yet undefined, hope and freedom to come. Frances’ two brothers have been killed. Her father has died leaving a financial mess. Her mother and her have let go the servants and taken in the paying guests.
Here is a rather splendid image: “Their friendship sometimes struck Frances as being like a piece of soap – like a piece of ancient kitchen soap that had got worn to the shape of her hand”.
The asphyxiating, inevitable denouement gets the same meticulous chronicling, a whole closet of angsts, guilts, deceits which can hardly be as sexy as the chase of the first half and are more testing of our sympathies…the formula badly needed a gear change but eventually France’s demons become flesh, the chain slips back onto the cogs for a final disentanglement of limbs post the protracted clinch between passion and guilt.
There is an elegant appraisal of early lesbian fiction by Margaret Talbot here in the New Yorker.