In none of the glowing reviews for the lavishly talented fiction writer Sarah Waters did I get a sense of the overwhelming sense of dread and darkness that infused this novel. Waters captures something in humans that is not pretty to look at, no matter how the two young women central to the action squirm to avoid condemnation.
1922, London. Frances belongs to a genteel household which includes only herself and her mother now at the end of WWI which had taken off her brothers, and finished her father. To pay the bills, she invites two boarders, "Len and Lil," newly married, to take up residence in the upstairs rooms. As Frances begins to hate pushy, overbearing, and snide Len, she simultaneously finds herself attracted to Lil. When Frances and Lil come together physically, I found myself disturbed—not so much by the idea of sex between two young women—as by the niggling sense of emotional coercion by Frances. As the story proceeded, that unease did not abate. And even Lil finally sees it in the final chapters: "You always bully me, Frances."
The story is a long one, and we are drawn into the world of criminal courts and family relationships that complicate the budding romance between the two central characters. The sense of disaster hangs over one quite palpably as the relationship between the two starts to fray under the strain of their involvement in the criminal case before the courts. One might say that neither woman showed herself to advantage in the maelstrom of accusations and public interest, and therein lie the darkness: no matter that we readers knew of their role and could exonerate them, there was still something devious, in their hearts and in their actions, that made us dislike and distrust them nonetheless.
This is a marvelous bit of writing that could make us so uneasy and feel the looming darkness in every scene. Much has been made of the sensuality with which the two women took to their bed, but even that made me uneasy. Lil was married but had never been properly “loved” and was therefore susceptible to someone who could bring her to orgasm. But sex, wondrous though it is, is not love after all. This is what I mean about “emotional coercion.” I think Frances knew this, and despite that knowledge, acted in her own self-interest and without the love she needed to make us more comfortable with her actions.
Sarah Waters’ writing is beautifully crafted but dark: Louise Welsh dark (The Cutting Room, The Bullet Trick); Patricia Highsmith dark (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Strangers on a Train). This was my first read of her fiction, and I admit surprise that she is so widely hailed by mainstream readers. Such a long book requires days of attention, and that darkness stays with one long after. Her roster of critical successes speaks to her talent.
I listened to the audio of this title, generously provided by Penguin Random House Audio, and narrated with great skill and terrific accents by Juliet Stevenson.
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