Review: The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsI thought I wouldn’t be able to stay away from writing about books for long and it only took a fine novel like The Paying Guests to start putting fingers to keyboard again.

Let me say at the start, there are no spoilers in this review.

After reading a few “so-so” books I found myself wanting to bury myself in some really good writing and recover that feeling of being swept along by a novel, resenting the time I have to spend away from it. I have always enjoyed reading Sarah Waters before (Fingersmith, The Little Stranger etc) for her complex plotting and rich characterisation and so when The Paying Guests came out I decided to try a sample chapter on the Kindle. Within a few minutes or reading I had made the purchase of the full novel and can only say that this is a terrific read, deeply absorbing and rich in atmosphere and insights into the human condition.

As the book opens we find ourselves a very few years after the First World War in a suburb of South London. Frances Wray and her mother live in a big old house which has become too expensive for them to run. Mr Wray has died of a heart-attack leaving only debts and disorder. Frances describes him as “a nuisance when he was alive, he made a nuisance of himself by dying and he’s managed to go on being a nuisance ever since”. Frances’s two brothers were both killed in the War and so the only option for the two women seems to take in “lodgers”, or as the prefer to call them, “paying guests” – a more genteel description to early 20th century sensibilities.

The paying guests arrive in the form of a young married couple, Mr and Mrs Barber (Lilian and Leonard, but what a long time it takes for everybody to get onto first-name terms!). Sarah Waters’ description of the first few days of adaptation is written with an artist’s hand – Frances and her mother find it difficult to share their home with these two strangers with their mysterious noises and comings and goings. They feel that the house is no longer their own (which it isn’t) and even their own space is invaded throughout the day because the Barbers have to go through their kitchen to get to the outside toilet (how easily we forget what life was like for most people a mere 100 years ago). Furthermore, Mr Barber has an extremely annoying habit of stopping to chat with Frances Wray while she is working in the kitchen – his easy familiarity grates with her desire for distance and a more formal relationship with her lodgers.

The story is written from the perspective of Frances Wray. Frances is an intelligent woman and although she is only in her late twenties, she feels that life has passed her by. We go with her on long walks through London, ending up in the lodgings of old girl-friends who seem to live so much more interesting lives. Walter’s portrayal of a young woman stuck at home looking after her elderly mother is typical of the times, while other more adventurous friends have managed to break free and forge a life for themselves in shabby bedsits and jobs in commerce. At least the new “paying guests” make her home life a little more interesting despite the challenges.

The book quickly develops in ways I would not want to describe for fear of spoiling it for readers. Lilian Barber turns out to be a more interesting character than Frances expected and before long Frances finds herself being embroiled in the lives of Leonard and Lilian in ways which she never expected.

Sarah-Waters-at-the-Edinb-001Waters writes of a period which is at the cusp of great social change. The stultified manners and relationships of Victorian and Edwardian times are being eroded by a more modern set of manners. The working class Barbers are rising upward whereas the Wrays and other more genteel people are finding that the old conventions are no longer providing them with the status or social skills they are accustomed to. This book is multi-layered dealing with the complexities of human relationships in a rapidly changing world, while also centring on a terrible crime and its aftermath. As always with Waters, we readers are treated to a good deal of suspense and highly-charged story-telling.

This book is written by a woman and most of the characters are female but as a man I found the book as relevant to me as any other. There is a courtship between two women in this story, but it is not too different from what happens between a man and a woman and on a personal note I met my wife in very similar circumstances to the couple in the story!. In any case, the sheer complexity and drive of the story makes it a good read for either gender.

Sarah Waters is noted for the high level of research she puts into her novels. With the Paying Guests she is on home ground for she lives in the part of south London in which the book is set and in the author’s note at the end of the book she lists a large number of books which have informed her work with this novel, quite a few of which concern “high-profile British murder cases of the twenties and thirties”. She also lists Vera Brittain’s books Testament of Youth and Chronicle of Youth, both of which show the vast social changes in the years during and immediately following the Great War and I can see that there are echoes of the character of Vera Brittain in Walter’s character Frances Wray.

The book is a page turner in the best sense of the phrases. At times my involvement with the book was so great I had to put it down and go and do something else to clear my head and remind myself that the characters and events described were fictional creations! Sarah Waters has the gift of drawing you on through her satisfyingly long books and as with all good literature you find yourself spinning it out toward the end because you don’t want it to finish.

Monk’s House – Sussex home of Virginia Woolf

We went to Monk’s House yesterday, the Sussex home of Virginia Woolf.  I’m not a great fan of Woolf’s writings but the house is not far from us, and it was such a beautiful May morning we decided to go across and look at the cottage set in its gorgeous gardens.

In one of her diary entries, Woolf wrote about Monk’s House,

Back from a good week at Rodmell – a weekend of no talking, sinking into deep safe book-reading; & then sleep: clear transparent; with the may tree like a breaking wave outside; & all the garden green tunnels, mounds of green; & then to wake into the hot still day, & never a person to be seen, never an interruption; the place to ourselves; the long hours.  DIARIES 1932

In those days, you had to go down a rutted cart-track to get to the house, a path beyond leading to the famous water-meadows where Virginia met her death by flinging herself into the slow-moving but deep River Ouse.  It shows the depth of depression she must have experienced, for the surrounding countryside and nearby coast with its chalk cliffs is spectacularly beautiful and (you might think) would refresh any soul.

Monk's House

Monk’s House

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Review: Death in Pont-Aven – Jean-Luc Bannalec

Death in Pont-AvenAnd what do we have here?  The first novel in a crime series by a new French writer, Jean-Luc Bannalec?  Well, not quite, for most literary journalists are agreed that M Bannelec is in fact Jörg Bong, a top German publisher who has been doing a bit of moon-lighting by creating the somewhat grumpy police detective Commissaire Dupin.  One thing for sure, Bannalec/Bong has scored a hit across Europe with Death in Pont-Aven and any fan of Inspector Maigret will find Dupin a worthy successor to Georges Simenon’s fictional detective.   There are even back references to Maigret for the book opens with Commissaire Dupin enjoying coffee and croissants in the Amiral Hotel, which featured in Simenon’s Yellow Dog (interestingly enough,  a real restaurant in Concarneau, which to this day features a “Maigret Menu“).

I spent four very pleasant days reading this book, with memories of several visits to Brittany, the scene of this fictional crime.  Brittany is a remarkable place, steeped in atmosphere with incredible beauty around every coastal corner.  The pretty villages, white-sanded coves, the off-shore islands and countless fishing boats, the exquisite sea-food and tons of typical French charm . . . I could go on, but it’s enough to say that it’s a region I love and this book put me in a holiday mood despite the vicious murder of a 91-year-old man that took place in its first few pages.

The elderly hotelier found dead from a knife wound on his restaurant floor is Pierre-Louis Pennec, a stalwart of the village of Pont-Aven where he has lived all his life in the hotel founded by his grand-parents.  His grand-mother founded the hotel and with her generous hospitality rapidly befriended various painters including Paul Gauguin.  Summer artists retreats took place in the village and before long, the Pont-Aven school of artists, became known for their paintings of Breton interiors and landscapes, packed full of local atmosphere.

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Review: Look Who’s Back – Timur Vermes

look whos backSo, it’s today’s Germany, and Adolf Hitler finds himself waking up early one afternoon on a patch of undeveloped land.

It was relatively quiet; I could not see any enemy aircraft flying overhead, or hear the thunder of artillery fire, there seemed to be no shelling nearby or explosions, no air-raid sirens.  It also struck me that there was no Reich Chancellery and no Führerbunker. 

In full dress-uniform, but reeking of petrol, Adolf Hitler gets up and makes his way across the road to a newspaper kiosk.  He glances at the dates on the newspapers and when he sees the year 2011 he collapses to the ground.

So begins Timur Vermes book, Look Who’s Back, the first German novel to look at Adolf Hitler from a humorous perspective.  And I have to say, it has been very well-received (if rather uneasily) and looks like it’s going to be turned into a film later this year despite the controversial subject matter.

On waking from his years of oblivion, Hitler wander across to a newspaper stall and begins to acquaint himself with today’s Germany.  It is not a comfortable process and Hitler rapidly comes to the conclusion that the nation is as much in need of a Führer as before.  But with no money in his pockets and an utterly changed landscape, the thought comes to him:

 I needed a livelihood, however modest or basic. I needed somewhere to stay and a little money until I had a clearer perspective. Perhaps I needed to find a job, temporarily at least, until I knew whether and how I might be able to seize the reins of government.  

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Review: Slater’s Sussex, The Colour Woodcuts of Eric Slater – James Trollope

SLATER BOOK COVERI had the privilege last year of going to an exhibition of colour woodcuts by Sussex artist Eric Slater (1898-1963) which launched the publication of a new book, Slater’s Sussex by James Trollope.

As a child Slater led a comfortable life as the son of a noted silversmith.  However, his father was struck down by pneumonia and heart failure when Eric was only eight years old and he moved with his mother, grand-mother and aunt down to Sussex where they lived in Bexhill, Winchelesa and Seaford.  Young Eric was a sickly child and his health prevented him enrolling for the army and serving in the First World War, instead studying craft and design at Hastings School of Art.

While living at Pevensey, Eric Slater was taught how to produce colour woodcuts by a neighbour, Arthur Rigden Read, who was an accomplished artist in this a notoriously difficult and demanding medium, requiring considerable craftsmanship as well as artistic ability.   Images are cut out from a wooden block using knives, chisels and gougers with one block forming the “key” block giving the outline design and subsequent block forming blocks of colour to be overlaid one at a time to build up a printed picture with up to ten layers of colour.  Although this work is laborious, it can all be done in the home studio without the need for a printing press – the image is transferred to the paper by painting the raised surfaces of the block with watercolour paint then laying the paper on the block and rubbing the back of it.  With up to ten blocks (one for each colour) a print run of say 50 sheets would require 500 impressions to be made.

Seaford Head by Eric Slater

Seaford Head by Eric Slater

These techniques originated in 18th century Japan but were adapted and developed by Europeans and Americans throughout the 19th century and by the 1930s colour woodcuts had become very  popular in Britain and beyond.  Slater had a decade of success in the ’30s with a dealer in Mayfair’s Cork Street and sales in America and Australia.  Unfortunately the popularity of colour woodcuts was not so survive the War when less demanding printing techniques rose to prominence while the market for magazine and advertising illustrations grew.

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Review: Walking the Woods and the Water – Nick Hunt

walkingIn my previous article I wrote about Patrick Leigh Fermor’s epic walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople in the early 1930s as covered in his book A Time of Gifts (and two other volumes). This week sees the publication of Nick Hunt’s book Walking the Woods & the Water which describes his own journey in the steps of Leigh Fermor, 78 years later.  Nick Hunt has journeyed through a very different Europe to the one Leigh Fermor walked through, with the Second World War and the creation of the Soviet Empire (and its later fall) having brought vast changes, particularly along the eastern sections of this walk.

I found it a fascinating exercise to read these two books back to back. They are very different in almost every respect, even though both Patrick Leigh Fermor and Nick Hunt both demonstrate in their books an incredibly adventurous spirit which puts both gap-year explorers and mature tourists to shame.   To start off on a journey like this with so little in the way of planning and resources means that you are going to be faced with crises and near-disasters which will at times be dangerous, even life-threatening, particularly in the more remote regions of Eastern Europe.

While Nick didn’t have the aristocratic contacts which gave Leigh Fermor occasional respite from his trudge across Europe, Nick at least had the website Couch Surfing to help him plan some of his overnight stops.  If ever proof were needed of the generosity of strangers this book is a good starting point, for not only did Nick’s hosts provide him with a bed, they often fed him and generally welcomed him into their lives, often inviting him to stay on and meet friends and relatives, visit bars and clubs, see local tourist attractions and then give him a lift to the best place to commence the next stage of his walk.  There is also a network of Leigh Fermor enthusiasts who met up with Nick from time to time and helped him identify locations covered in the earlier books.  These encounters are some of the most interesting aspect of his book and give a real insight into what it is like to live in the places he visited.

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Review: A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermour

patrick lfI’ve been intending to read A Time of Gifts: On Foot from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople for quite a few years now but have never got round to it.  Perhaps it’s the beginning of spring which has turned my mind to travel but also reading about new books about Patrick Leigh Fermor also made me think that now was the time to catch up with this renowned travel writer.

In 1933 at the age of 18, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off on an epic walk across Europe. Adolf Hitler had just come to power in Germany and the continent would soon be ravaged by war.  Leigh Fermor set of at the end of December with only a small amount of money and carrying a rucksack containing a few possessions.

Although he kept extensive notes about his journey, he didn’t start writing this book until the 1970s and it was first published in 1977, over 40 years after the events described.  In the intervening period, Leigh Fermor had become a war hero (kidnapping a German Commander in Crete) and an established travel-writer.  A Time of Gifts has none of the signs of immaturity one might expect of a teen-aged traveller although I suspect that even at 18 he already showed many of the qualities that would be evident in his later work.

Not many people would choose to set off on such an epic journey in the middle of winter, but Leigh Fermor embarked on a Dutch steamer sailing from Tower Bridge to the Hook of Holland in mid-December.  Wearing an ex-army great-coat and hob-nail boots, he disembarked in Rotterdam and began his trudge across Europe in the flat lands of Holland, walking along the polders and canals in a bitterly cold east wind.

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Review: Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene

greene heart matterFor the last couple of weeks I’ve been casting around for something to read, making two or three false starts (on books which were so unimpressive I gave up on them), and finally deciding that it’s about time I revisited the works of Graham Greene.  I was partly inspired by the relaunch in Amazon Kindle format of the Vintage Classics editions of Greene’s novels, most of which are priced around £4.00, which to me seems pretty good value for such fine books which have quite a few years to go before they are out of copyright.

I think I read almost all of Greene’s novels and travel writings way back in the 1970s and 80s, which is so long ago that I could probably write a one-sentence synopsis of each book but no more.  While I remember Greene as a very cerebral writer whose novels make profound statements about the purpose of human existence, perhaps his greatest legacy is in the cinema, where so many of his books inspired films such as Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, A Gun for Sale, The Honorary Consul and others too.   Quite a powerful list of credits for someone who wrote complex novels in which literary quality is a major feature.

And so to The Heart of the Matter, a novel I chose because the name of the central character Henry Scobie stays in my mind but without the detail which would enable me to say anything about him.  I think I chose well because the book reminded me within the first few pages of what it feels like to have your mind absorbed in a great book.

Henry Scobie lives in a British colony in West Africa where he is the deputy commissioner with responsibility for the police.  Greene later identified the colony as Sierra Leone, and there is little in this 1948 novel to commend it as a travel destination with its poverty, corruption and general squalor.  Scobie lives with his wife Louise and together they take part in the social life of the colony with its rigid class structure in which everyone knows everybody else’s business.  Louise is a devoted Catholic but is also deeply disappointed with her life in the colony, where her husband has failed to gain promotion, leaving her languishing as a social also-ran among the colony wives.

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Review: The Asylum – Johan Theorin

The Asylum - Jacob TheorinLast year I enjoyed reading Johan Theorin’s book, The Quarry , the third book in a  quartet of novels based on the island of Öland in the Baltic Sea.  While possibly falling into the hugely popular “Scandi-crime” genre, The Quarry had elements which set it apart, not least by its interweaving of a thoroughly modern story of a family in crisis with a deeper story emerging from the island’s folk-lore traditions.

When in March of last year The Asylum appeared I marked it down as one to read but have only got round to it this month. Had I known how good it was I would have read it much earlier and it has made me want to go back to the first two of Theorin’s novels and download them to the Kindle for future consumption.

The Asylum could be categorised as a psychological thriller, but it is much more than that, with it’s exploration of a very troubled psyche indeed.  The main character, Jan, a young man in his twenties, arrives in a Swedish town to work in The Dell, a nursery attached to a secure hospital, St Patricia’s, where the young children of inmates are cared for during the day, returning in the evening to their foster homes.  Two or three of the children who are awaiting foster home placements spend their nights in the Dell, requiring the five staff to work night-shifts on a rota.

Occasionally the children are taken on supervised visits to their incarcerated parent.  The Dells’s staff have to escort the children through an underground passage to a lift which takes them up to the hospital where a security guard takes over and the staff member returns to the nursery, going back to pick up the children up an hour later.

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Four Quartets – T S Eliot

Four Quartets first editionI don’t read much poetry, but thanks for BBC Radio 4 I get small doses of poetry which make me wish I had the time to explore more poets and their work.  Every week Poetry Please with Roger McGough provides it’s listeners with 30 minutes of readers requests and occasional features on individual poets (Shirley Henderson’s reading of Christina Rosetti’s Goblin Market was a recent delight).

Back in January we were treated to a reading by Jeremy Irons of T S Eliots Four Quartets, a set of poems which contain so many immortal lines it would be hard to know where to stop quoting them.  In an English February for example, Eliot-s words capture the rain-soaked cold which seems never-ending despite the occasional glimpses of sunshine:

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat

Eliot had the ability to paint a canvas of imagery in just a few words:

Ash on and old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.

(you can almost see the scene, an elderly man in an a shabby, old arm-chair with dead-roses in a vase on a table next to him).

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