The Little Stranger

by Sarah Waters

i can’t quite bring myself to finish this book. I have read about half of it, having picked it up in the library a few days ago while waiting for my latest reservation to arrive.

Waters writes fluently and naturally, and the historical and physical setting are interesting and well-observed. But I find that the story moves oh-so-slowly, and there is little or not character development.

Some critics have described these early novels of Sarah Waters as echoing the style of earlier authors: Dickens, or in this case, Du Maurier. I can’t really comment, as I have only read one novel by Du Maurier (Rebecca).  But I think it was more engaging – and more threatening – than this. Perhaps it is just that I am not keen on ghost stories.

Fingersmith

by Sarah Waters

After reading and enjoying The  Paying Guests, I read an enthusiastic review of this book and ordered it from the library.

Set in Waters’ more familiar territory of the mid-nineteenth century, this story gives a vivid impression of life in a London household of petty thieves, run by a matriarch who ‘farms’ infants and a fence who operates under cover of a locksmith’s shop.  One of the story’s main characters, Susan, grows up in this environment.  Very different to Susan’s home life, Maud’s is just as tightly circumscribed (in fact, as we gradually learn, much more so).  She lives in a secluded country house near Marlow, where she helps her uncle with his literary cataloguing activity.

The lives of the two girls coincide through a plot devised by an acquaintance of the thieves.  Their story is told, first in Part One by Susan, and then in Part Two by Maud.  This is a very clever device; it throws into relief the similarities and differences between the two girls, and although the timeline and many of the events in their stories are the same, they have very different perspectives and experiences.

I became a bit bored by Part Three.  Here, the story is brought to its dramatic conclusion – but by this stage, the reader already knows all the twists in the back story.  This section goes into alarming detail in its account of the treatment of patients in a mental institution.  The reader is bound to believe that Waters is basing her story on factual accounts – and this makes the description all the more horrific.  The ending of the novel is, for me, rather too stretched-out and hard to believe.  Nevertheless, I read this book quickly and greedily.  The writing is excellent, and the characters got under my skin.

The Paying Guests

by Sarah Waters

Waters is a good writer of historical fiction.  This is the first of her novels that I have read, though I saw the TV version of Tipping the Velvet.  She writes about women’s lives, especially lesbian women and their experiences, mainly focussing on the nineteenth century.  This book is, apparently, unusual in being based in the 1920s.

The characters are realistic and accessible.  Much of the plot revolves around a court case, and Waters has evidently done her research.  For me, this is less interesting than the social and domestic detail that populates the book.  I found the setting utterly convincing, and could almost smell the house, as the various characters enter and leave it.

Frances is a victim of the devastating aftermath of the war.  Her father has left the family in debt, her brother has died, and Frances and her mother help to make ends meet by letting a couple of rooms in the family house to the ‘paying guests’ of the title.  Frances becomes involved with one of the guests.

This is a love story, a moral tale, and a gripping legal case.  The sex scenes are fairly graphic, but they fit the story, and they are also believable.  I would willingly (and probably shall) read more by this author.