Sacrificed

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“Sacrificed places Chanette Paul among the classiest thriller writers of our day.”

Sacrificed by Chanette Paul is a long and satisfying read. Despite its length it is a page-turner that will keep you reading long past the moment the midnight oil burns out. It is a thriller and a family saga with heft and portent. The novel thrusts us deeply into the troubled seas of racial identity in pre- and post-apartheid South Africa, as well as into the tragic and chaotic political mix that comprises modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

From the desperate Belgian Congo in 1961—the time of the murder of President Patrice Lumumba—to life in the natural beauty of South Africa, now a country that 20 years after apartheid ended, sadly is riddled with crime. South African author, Chanette Paul, does not sugarcoat reality.

Ambiguity and coincidence serve as the major organizing principles of this complex and evocative novel. Protagonist Caz Colijn notes this and quotes the poet John Donne, “no man is an island.” Life is an intricate puzzle of interconnected stories—those we know and those that remain hidden. What happens in one life shakes the web of interconnection with often unforeseen consequences.

Caz, a 53-year-old woman, translates English and Afrikaans books. She is a recluse, living alone in a remote part of the rural Cape Province of South Africa—the Overberg. Unexpectedly her estranged sister calls from Belgium to tell her that their mother is dying and wants to see Caz. She declares that Fien is not Caz’s biological mother, and she, not Caz’s sister. This news comes as a thunderbolt to Caz and galvanizes her into undertaking the trip to Belgium. She is obsessed with a search for her biological mother.

We meet a host of characters, all with interconnected ties to Caz, although often they and she do not know this. There are the two mysterious Congolese men who shadow Caz’s every move, a professor of contemporary African history who finds himself thrust into the mix, and a Belgium detective who follows apparently synchronistic clues that ultimately do not produce conclusive evidence. There are African spirits, nkisi, African art, and spiritual rituals—all somehow associated with diamonds. Any more details will be spoilers to this gripping thriller.

Caz is a white woman but she has a remarkable black daughter, an international super-model, Lilah. Lilah’s father was Caz’s white, Afrikaner, long since divorced from husband. Cross-currents of race and racial identity abound.

“Of course, she realized that there must have been a racial mix somewhere for her to have given birth to Lilah, but she would never have thought that it would be a father or grandfather, an old transgression of the immorality law on the Maritz side, perhaps even of Magdel’s forefathers in days gone by who had fallen out of the family tree.

Now it turned out she herself was of color. Despite her white skin.

Until Lilah had said it so comically, it had not really dawned on her. A half-breed. That was what she was. It didn’t turn her into anything or anyone other than Caz Colijn, but it was still a shock. An idea she would have to get used to. . . .

She and Lilah came from a family tree where they had to make peace with shades. Like the yesterday-today-and-tomorrow tree had to make peace with its fading flowers.”

In Sacrificed the arcs of many storylines merge and part and ultimately leave several threads hanging. This in itself is satisfying and realistic, an intelligent way to conclude the book. Intimate family trajectories, as well as those of grandiose political schemas cannot be neatly packaged simply because they have become more transparent to the characters and the reader. Ultimately, we are left with some answers but also more questions.

If there is a weakness in the novel it is the somewhat sketchy role of the two Congolese men who doggedly follow Caz. Their philosophy of “reAfrikanization + Dewhitenization = Total Afrikan Liberation” deserves far more development than simply serving as a plot device in the riveting mystery and drama around Congolese uncut diamonds and political ambition.

But this is a minor quibble in what is a compelling read in author Paul’s North American debut. After 41 novels written in Afrikaans and published in her native South Africa, Sacrificed places Chanette Paul among the classiest thriller writers of our day.

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Long Black Veil: A Novel

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“All the twists and turns and deliberate obfuscation of characters names and identities and piled on bizarre coincidences in overly descriptive scenes, only add to the Byzantian complexity of what essentially is a standard thriller with noire and horror elements.”

Long Black Veil by well-reputed author Jennifer Finney Boylan, although a page-turner, is a cumbersome read. From the first pages, set in the abandoned and supposedly haunted Eastern State Penitentiary prison outside of Philadelphia, a motley group of eight recently graduated college friends (one with a younger brother tagging along) undergo a horrifying experience and the loss of one of their members. This character’s disappearance languishes in police files as a cold case murder. No spoilers below.

The first chapters are akin to entering a maze, and as the book progresses there are more dead ends and false starts than any inkling of a clear path to the safe center. After several confusing chapters, astute readers may have the characters straightened out, but the hard work demands too much.

Decades (and chapters) later when these now estranged friends meet again and readers sense that Boylan is about to tie up the loose ends—solution to the murder, muted reconciliation among the group and justice served—the maze center safely gained, readers are in for more surprises. All the twists and turns and deliberate obfuscation of characters names and identities and piled on bizarre coincidences in overly descriptive scenes, only add to the Byzantian complexity of what essentially is a standard thriller with noire and horror elements.

The strongest parts of the book occur when Boylan writes from the point of view of the trans character who finds marginal redemption. This is not surprising as Boylan herself is trans and her character’s experience rings powerfully true.

Also memorable are the scenes from a macabre student arts festival event in the abandoned prison. These overheated scenes with masked celebrants flitting in shadows, evokes similar scenes of Venetian masked celebrations as described in Jeanette Winterson’s book The Passion.

Boylan is a prolific and strong writer. At her best she evokes the hair-raising chills Joyce Carol Oates can. But this book is not her best.

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The Price of Salt

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“The Price of Salt is a moving, beautifully conceived and written book. It is a mesmerizing read.”

The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (author of The Talented Mr. Ripley and other well-known novels) first published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan in 1952 is an American classic. A huge bestseller when first published, currently it enjoys a well-deserved revival with the release of the movie Carol on which it is based. Carol has received rave critical reviews internationally and many awards.

The Price of Salt is the classic American love story of boy meets girl, their attraction immediate, the slow dance of courtship, and the headlong fall into a tempestuous affair. However in this instance (and it is a significant “however”) the protagonists are not boy and girl but girl and older woman.

These two people—the girl (Therese aged 19) and the older woman (Carol in her early 30s)—meet in a department store during the Christmas season. Therese works temporarily as an assistant in the toy department, and Carol is looking for a doll for her young daughter:

“Their eyes met at the same instant. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away. Her mouth was as wise as her eyes, Therese thought, and her voice was like her coat, rich and supple and somehow full of secrets.”

The novel is written entirely from Therese’s perspective, a single voice narrative style presently in vogue. We see Carol through Therese’s eyes, we share Therese’s introspection but not Carol’s, and yet Carol emerges as a fully developed character, complex and nuanced. Not only the lens of Therese’s perspective but also the dialog used as a literary device allows us to more fully grasp the coloring of Carol’s personality. Both what she says and how she acts carry layers of implicit meaning.

At first Therese grapples with trying to understand why falling in love with a woman is classified as distinct from falling in love with a man. (In 1952 such love was a taboo subject.) Each woman knows what she desires and while they dance around one another, neither knows the steps to manifest what she wishes.

One of the strengths of the novel lies in our being privy to Therese’s musings and struggles to find the mores and etiquette of her emotional response to a woman. Highsmith’s writing in creating this dynamic is revelatory. Initially, Therese experiences a romantic obsession. On an early visit to Carol’s house, she plays the piano at Carol’s behest:

“It was suddenly too much, her hands on the keyboard Carol played, Carol watching her with eyes half closed, Carol’s whole house around her, and the music that made her abandon herself, made her defenseless.”

All through the book (in less than a year) Therese grows into a woman as the house visits become a long road trip on which obsession becomes mutual love: “She saw Carol’s pale hair across her eyes, and now Carol’s head was close against hers. And she did not have to ask if this were right, no one had to tell her, because this could not have been more right or perfect.”

Slowly the disapprobation of the morally prejudiced world shatters their idyll. Carol is undergoing a divorce and is in a legal battle for joint custody of her daughter. Gradually Therese comes to understand the societal costs of her and Carol’s choices. There is heartbreak for both. Therese and Carol are forced to separate by legal circumstance forged by the divorce proceedings.

Carol stands to lose her daughter on “moral grounds,” but during the process of hearings she refuses to accede to the demands of her ex-husband and his family that she undergo correctional behavior therapy and give up forming liaisons with women. Courageously, Carol, accepting the reality of her identity, refuses to deny her sexuality although it means she cannot see her daughter. Yet love triumphs and the novel ends with a true beginning of the possibilities of a life together.

It is not difficult perhaps to see the novel as tinged with the darkness of the human condition that becomes Highsmith’s landscape in her later novels. Carol, always under control, suave and sophisticated can appear as a spider spinning a web to trap Therese. At first maternal, but with an implicit edge of secret intimacy, she surprises herself by falling so deeply in love—desire becomes need. Having undergone her own journey and by relinquishing her daughter, she gambles on winning back Therese.

In the early part of the book it is easy to see Therese as an unwitting, innocent but willing quarry, but at the conclusion—grown up now—she becomes both predator and prey. Only a naturally talented and consummate storyteller could create the realistic and slowly evolving portrayal of Therese’s character.

In this her second novel, written at age 27, Highsmith writes not by probing the minds of psychopaths but with her heart, the material so close to her doppelgänger, Therese, that only in her last years could she bear to have her name attached to the novel. A private, reclusive personality, Highsmith regarded the work as too exposing of her own sexual orientation and inner life.

The Price of Salt is a moving, beautifully conceived and written book. It is a mesmerizing read.

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/price-salt#sthash.xBC2JBz4.dpuf

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The Wolf Border: A Novel

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This is a superb novel: luminous and illuminating. You’ll gallop through every page and then read it again. British author Sarah Hall is a writer’s writer . . . as well as a reader’s best friend. She gets it all right. Page turning plot development, command of the protagonist’s third person point of view, gripping story lines, flawed characters (human like you and me), beautiful, shimmering descriptions of her beloved Cumbrian landscape (the Lake District), where she was born and raised.

“In the days that follow, the heat of summer lifts, and the sun becomes less concentrated. September. The trees fluoresce, as if in a final bid to stay green. There is already a tint of autumn, leaves beginning to gather and flutter along the verges . . . In the sky, a more complicated portfolio of colours: lilacs, yellows, like a warning—bad weather brewing in the Atlantic.”

Hall is famous for her precise depictions of landscape, and this book does not disappoint. And that’s just the surface of the novel. There are layers of metaphor and meaning surrounding our deepest associations with abstract concepts of “wolf” and “border.” Cleverly entwined strands of the real and surreal, and conscious and subconscious mind states.

Hall challenges us to plunge deeply into our psyches to uncover, with Rachel Caine, the novel’s protagonist as our guide, understandings of what these words represent. This metaphysical jousting proves a welcome challenge to readers; an unusual phenomenon today, among the vast majority of books published in our one-byte, popular culture.

Rachel Caine is a brilliant loner; she has spent a decade as an expert wolf zoologist on a remote reservation in Idaho attending to a pack of wolves re-introduced into their natural habitat. A surprise invitation from the Earl of Annerdale in Cumbria draws her back home to England. Lord Pennington, the Earl, and owner of this vast estate near the Scottish border, proposes a “rewilding” scheme of his own. After 500 years he wants to reintroduce the northern gray wolf to the estate.

In conservation circles “rewilding,” a term created by conservation activist, David Foreman, describes a relatively new phenomenon. The aim of rewilding is conservation on a significant scale to restore ecological resources, including connectivity between protected areas, and reintroduce apex predators. The hope is to restore natural balance to unbalanced landscapes. According to biologists this conservation method is based on “cores, corridors, and carnivores.”

Near Lord Pennington’s estate resides Rachel’s “difficult” family, from whom she feels she successfully escaped across a physical border to the United States. Ensconced in Cumbria are her selfish, manipulative mother and a dysfunctional brother. Additionally, to her annoyance, Rachel finds she must deal with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy after an ill-judged one night stand with a fellow ranger during the winter festive season on the reservation.

By moving to Cumbria, Rachel must somehow navigate the shoals of family relationships whose under-currents threaten the boundaries of independence and selfhood—mother, brother, baby, burgeoning love interest, and her enigmatic boss. As complicated as these tracks and trails through the thickets of ties that bind her within family and other borders, her interactions with these (and other) characters are not Rachel’s primary territory; this terrains is inhabited by her relationship with wolves.

Early in the novel we find a clue to her innermost psyche; Rachel presents herself for sex, as would a female wolf. After the push-pull tease in sleazy bars on the outer border of the reservation she finds a succession of males, the hunters, “close-shaven, militaristic, or long-haired with greasy, white marks from sunglasses along their temples.”

Subtle eye signals announce she is ready for sex. She plays the game of shared rounds of drinks then lures them to her truck, where they follow her in their vehicles to the darkness of a reservation forest cleaning. Once in their vehicles she moves “to the metal truck bed . . . damp, smells of oil and blood from occasional deer carcass.”

After initial contact, and making sure a condom is in place, to the appreciation of the men, she presents herself “on all fours, not for his benefit, but the presentation is not lost on him . . . this is different, sudden, abandoned.”

On some profound associative level in these encounters Rachel emanates herself as a female wolf. In another almost hidden abstraction to this mating game, she (the conservationist) dominates the despised hunters (with their guns and swagger) by playing the role of the pack’s alpha female.

Wolves are the iconic emblems of this novel, and borders are multifaceted and complex.

Rachel agrees, albeit dubiously, to head the operation to reintroduce a pair of wolves to the Earl’s estate. They arrive, adapt to their new environment, mate and produce four cubs; while Rachel who has not told the father of her child she is pregnant, gives birth alone. But she has her own family pack, primarily her brother, and the estate vet who becomes her lover. Yet always the wolves are the compass needles within her psyche’s threshold.

“Spring gives way early to summer, the foliage thickening, the light over the western mountains shedding its dullness. Six wolves are silhouetted against the Cumbrian fells. They are no longer aliens: they never were. She is nameless to them. They have everything they need.”

On the first pages of the novel, while on the Idaho reservation, Rachel has a dream of a childhood encounter with a caged wolf contained by a fence in part of a forest near where she lived. Freed by her mother’s permission to do so, preschool Rachel reaches the fence and starts to climb over when she notices a wolf emerge from shadows and “in her dream, the wolf stands looking at her.”

This is her “first communion” with a wolf.  A reservation mystic asks her what the encounter felt like. “How does it feel? Pre-erotic fear. The heart beneath her chest jumps, feels bloody. The wolf’s head lowers: eyes level, keen as gold, sorrowless. ” She climbs down and walks along the fence, while the wolf lopes alongside her but separated from her by the fence border.

“In her brain an evolutionary signal fires. What a mouth like that means . . .  She stops walking, and it stops. She turns slowly and walks the other way. It crosses paws, turns and follows. An echo, or a mirror. She stops, ‘What are you doing?’” She races along the side of the fence but the wolf runs with her, faithfully mimicking her movements. “To the very corner of the cage, where she stops, breathing hard, and it stands looking at her. What are you doing? she says.” As Rachel emerges from her dream, Hall writes the answer, “She knows.”

Rachel’s totemic wolf is forever cornered in her brain and she must liberate its evolutionary physical form from the confines of fences and humankind’s ancient, archetypal lupine fear: to be free across all borders.

Eventually the wolf family breaks out of the estate’s fortified fences and manages to progress across northern England to roam the truly wild, unfenced places of Scotland. The Earl’s rewilding scheme succeeds and he has indeed created a “corridor” for the apex predator (as outlined above.)

Now no longer working for the Earl (who heartbreakingly disillusions her with his double-dealing and political scheming) but as a consultant to the Scottish government on the “rewilding” of wolves, Rachel, too, breaks out of certain of her psychological restraints and ultimately revisits the Idaho reservation to introduce their son to his father.

In the novel, Scotland (a physical boundary, as well as one of Rachel’s metaphysical borders) votes for independence and becomes autonomous: and as envisaged by Hall, a utopian place of freedom and governmental functionality.

Throughout the novel we read of Rachel’s (and Hall’s) disenchanted, dystopian social judgments on the entrenched oligarchic structure of English politics and classist society. These observations echo strands of Sarah Hall’s previous fiction where dystopian sentiment flourishes.

Sarah Hall is young, in her early forties, and this is her fifth novel. She is an honored, prize-winning, and renowned writer. The Wolf Border was published to positive critical acclaim in Great Britain in March 2015 and sold in many European countries as well.

 

Janet Levine is a journalist and author of four books including the novel Leela’s Gift

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/wolf#sthash.l0O49liH.dpuf

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Searching for Wallenberg

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In Searching for Wallenberg author Alan Lelchuk chooses to work in the well-worn structure of a novel within a novel. He succeeds in breathing more life into Dartmouth College’s Manny Gellerman, history professor cum sleuth, than into the secrets of Swedish diplomat and savior of thousands of Budapest’s Jews toward the end World War Two, Raoul Wallenberg.

As we follow Gellerman on his picaresque journey he writes his own novel on Wallenberg. If this sounds confusing, at times it is, but ultimately the novel is a satisfying read.

The outline events of Raoul Wallenberg’s life are well known, but his two-year incarceration and death in a Russian prison, Lybianka, in 1947, remain a mystery. Gellerman, following leads uncovered by a graduate student he mentors through her post-graduate thesis process, provide the impetus for his search for Wallenberg.

Alarm bells sound when Gellerman, in questionable academic practice, uses the student’s research to further his own academic ends. There is leeway here, of course, for initially he suggested she research Raoul Wallenberg’s demise. His impetus to follow this trail himself arises when she surprises him by uncovering (on a sojourn in Budapest) possible evidence of Wallenberg’s mistress (possibly even wife) and granddaughter (still living) in Hungary.

Despite this worm in the Edenic apple, Lelchuk clearly evokes the pastoral idyll that is Ivy League, Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire (bordering on Vermont). The author himself teaches at the college and his clear-eyed exposition on the self-satisfied smugness of tenured professors who never challenge themselves rings true.

But Gellerman, divorced and fit (he walks a good deal around campus and plays tennis), in his mid-sixties, shakes up his own fretful complacency by spending the summer months in Budapest and parts of Russia searching for Wallenberg. In Budapest he meets Zsuzanna Wallenberg possibly Wallenberg’s granddaughter, and an intriguing relationship ensues.

One of the author’s strengths is the creation of many interesting characters, among the most engaging his young teenage son, Josh, a cello playing prodigy, whom he calls “the boy,” and Wallenberg’s KGB interrogator, Daniel Pagliansky.

A downside for this reader is the clumsy means the writer uses for separating the strands of the novel. A solid, black line on the page between Gellerman’s writing and Lelchuk’s narrative of Gellerman is all we have. The author makes no attempt to fuse the two.

Disconcerting as well is Gellerman’s propensity to criticize and question if his fictional choices suit his academic purpose in scene after scene that he creates on his computer narrating the story of Raoul Wallenberg’s demise. Gellerman continually questions whether he is preserving Wallenberg’s legacy and furthering the historical record or adding more confusion to the mystery?

Perhaps this is the author’s (rather unsubtle) intention to keep reminding his readers of Gellerman’s premise that all history is fiction and all fiction history (a current lively debate in academia’s Humanities departments). Gellerman teaches a seminar on History through Literature and as he reflects on this course “each book presented a different problem about how history had entered fiction and, conversely, how fiction had shaped history.”

As the students discuss, “Sure, here in a novel he can interpret as much as he wants. . . . But if he were writing ‘real’ history?” Another says, “What do you mean ‘real history’? Don’t historians make their own interpretations as well?” A third posits, “Maybe we should read some of the histories as fiction then? And some of fiction as history?”

Does the appeal of this novel lie in this very ambiguity, so that the novel becomes part philosophical inquiry, part historiographical research and reading of the record, part fiction and part nonfiction.

To read this book is to take a thinking person’s journey to uncover the “truth” of a valiant but ultimately enigmatic historical figure.

 

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Solstice Greetings December 21, 2014

When thinking what to blog about at this juncture of the year,  the word “books” keeps coming to mind. Books, in many ways remain an anchor in my life. So, I am going to share my great pleasure in books by selecting several highlights from my reading this year.  I’ll start with my most recent “fav”.

Seems as if this past year is the season for excellent historical novels and I so enjoyed and highly recommend The Paying Guests by acclaimed British author, Sarah Waters. In 1920s London, begrimed both physically and metaphorically by the ravages of WW1, Frances Wray and Lilian Barber form a friendship that leads to unanticipated and spellbinding consequences. Shot through with undertones of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s inimitable Crime and Punishment, this exquisitely written novel hits all the high notes available to a consummate artist at the height of her powers.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, a fictional memoir written by formerly wealthy Moroccan merchant-cum-Spanish slave, Estebanico, who in 1527 accompanied his grandee master–along with 600 other Spanish conquistadors and journeymen–on the fictional recreation of a historic expedition from Hispaniola to the Gulf Coast of Florida to explore and claim La Florida territory for the Spanish crown. Only four members survived. Estebanico’s account counters the whitewash “official” version. This novel has everything: history, adventure, relationships, survival, courage, cruelty and important questions of morality, religiosity, and cultural anthropology. It is both anachronistic and perfectly attuned to contemporary issues.

The classic book on the Florida Everglades, The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, first published almost seventy years ago, remains a gripping and fascinating account of the pre-history and history of this amazing eco-system. It is a must read for anyone who loves or who is interested in this landscape. I love the Everglades and this biota is one of the main motivations for my move to southwest Florida. I’ll be forever grateful for Stoneman’s book, it is already my constant companion.

I’m honored to highlight The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, published late fall 2013, an unforgettable read, a towering novel, that will remain the gold standard for dissecting the post-2001 apocalyptic world in which we find ourselves. In February 2014 it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Here are several paragraphs from the concluding pages. I hope they leave you wanting more.

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

“It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance, a grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.

“And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

“And—I would argue as well—all love…the play between things, both love and not-love, there and not there.”

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Happy Solstice! As we (in the northern hemisphere) emerge from the dark light of December I send my love and wholehearted good wishes to my followers and readers for good health and happiness in the upcoming year, wherever you are.

 

 

 

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First Published in the New York Journal of Books October 21, 2014:

The Paying Guests by Sarah Water

waters cover

The Paying Guests by English author Sarah Waters is a brilliant novel. This book deserves the accolades and favorable reviews currently garlanding its release. Sarah Waters hits the high notes available to a consummate novelist at the height of her power—and happily her remarkable storytelling gifts make this book an excellent read. – See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/paying-guests#sthash.7uLumxHv.dpuf

 

My first read through was at a gallop, as I could not bear to relinquish the characters to the covers and stop reading. Almost immediately I finished the 576th page, I returned to the beginning and read with appreciation the artistry evident on every page.

 

In the early 1920s, post-WW1 suburban London, in a “good” neighborhood, in a once stately home presently succumbing to the ravages of time and the general griminess of the post-war years, we find the owners, Frances Wray and her mother. The once well-to-do family lost two sons in the war and a father consumed by grief and facing financial ruin through his own poor business judgments.

 

Frances Wray, an intelligent and perceptive woman in her twenties—a suffragette, free thinker and vehement anti-war activist—surrenders her freedom and independence to live with her mother and undertake the household duties of the “serving class”—“except the laundry”—in a losing battle against ever-encroaching poverty. Mother and daughter make a fateful decision to take in lodgers or “paying guests” as they describe their tenants to nosy neighbors.

 

The “paying guests”, a young married couple, Lilian and Leonard Barber, also in their twenties, arrive one Saturday, early summer afternoon with a van load of belongings. They are of the “clerk class.” Leonard works at an insurance company in the City, and artistic but bored and housebound Lilian pours her creativity into designing and sewing clothes for herself and creating an eclectic almost bohemian décor in the upper floor of the staid house. The house seems to creak and groan as it accommodates to the upheaval of the domestic arrangement.

 

The first half of the book develops the slowly blossoming friendship of the two young women from such different backgrounds that slowly but inevitably blooms into a passion flower. The consequences of this relationship, the unexpected twists and turns of the second half of the book are spellbinding. No spoilers here.

 

As always (since Tipping the Velvet her first novel) Waters’ characters jump off the page into life, so real, we feel we know these people. Narrated in the third person through Frances’ point of view, a difficult perspective skillfully handled; we discern what Leonard, Lilian and the others think and feel—continually—every detail fits. I’ve read all of Waters’ novels and they are uniformly excellent, but this one shines. The research is thorough; you know the neighborhood as well as Frances’ does and resonate with the physical drudgery of her domestic chores. London in the 1920s comes alive in ways I had not previously contemplated. The streets and bridges over the Thames are characters too.

 

During my second reading I was struck by the implications of moral responsibility inherent to the novel and the almost gentle way Waters’ enters into this tortuous territory. Crime and Punishment, the great Dostoevskyean fictional treatise of this thorny ground pulverizes and perplexes like a Rembrandt painting. Certainly Frances Wray is no Raskalnikov nor Waters a Dostoevsky. Water ’work is more like that of a miniaturist, a Dutch master painter of domesticity such as Vermeer. Each author has their milieu and each renders weighty matters of morality and conscience with deft strokes.

 

British writing has for about ten years been experiencing a remarkable renaissance of literary fiction. Long may this movement flourish. Sarah Waters stands among the leaders. And this is one reader who cannot wait for her next book.

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