Testing the Waters

Sarah Waters, deft characterisation

Sarah Waters, deft characterisation

First published in Entertainment & Lifestyle

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Virago £20, ebook £7.99) 4/5 stars 

METICULOUS Fingersmith and Tipping The Velvet writer Sarah Waters heads back a century for her sixth novel, the compelling and richly-written The Paying Guests. Opening up in London in 1922, we meet Mrs Wray, a formerly well-to-do widow and her spinster daughter Frances who have fallen on hard times following the late Mr Wray’s poor investments, and are forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet.

Somewhat brasher and less socially established than the Wrays, Lilian and Leonard Barber, a young upwardly mobile couple from the clerk class, bring a change in their domestic dynamic. Stuck indoors and tasked with doing the backbreaking work that the servants used to do while her ashamed mother is out of sight, the more worldly Frances soon strikes up a bond with the seemingly conservative Lilian.

The two young women start a fervent friendship, connecting over a love of books and, before long, fall in love. But the domestic bliss is soon shattered by a tragic event which binds the two women together in a terrifying way.

Compelling from the start, with dialogue and detail giving a real sense of place and time, The Paying Guests does nevertheless fall short of topping some of Waters’ justifiably praised earlier novels.

That said, there is much to be praised in Waters’ deft characterisation and her ability to write three-dimensional characters from all classes – including Lilian’s engaging working class mother Mrs Viney. Likewise, judgment never clouds the story and, as always, Waters credits her readers with relishing the nuanced grey between the black and white matter.

The Zone Of Interest by Martin Amis (Jonathan Cape £18.99, ebook £6.64) 4/5 srars

AMIS’ work divides into two broad strands. There are the State-of- England satires (Success, Money, Lionel Asbo) and then there are the books that reflect on the horrors of the mid-20th Century, the gulags and the death camps (Time’s Arrow, House Of Meetings). The Zone Of Interest falls firmly into the second category. Set in Auschwitz and rooted in real events, it focuses on a tight cast of senior Nazis (among them Camp Commandant Paul Doll) and inmates like Szmul, who, as a Sonder, endures a unique hell among hells – forced to assist in the cremation and disposal of the slaughtered.

In every Amis novel, there is usually an additional character to contend with: the Amis style. With its rhetorical inversions and repetitions, its neologisms and its italics, it has been lauded, derided – and much imitated. It remains probably the most distinctive voice in British fiction. Amis moves his characters through a narrative that is part thriller and part thwarted love story, and gains direction and momentum as a result.

Trying to put thoughts into the head of a Sonder will no doubt attract controversy, and who can say if the results are credible.

But this is a brave and ambitious novel that will help readers to remember – even to discover – what must not be denied or forgotten.

Man At The Helm by Nina Stibbe (Viking £14.99, ebook £5.03) 4/5 stars 

THIS debut novel follows Nin Stibbe’s successful memoir, Love, Nina, and I truly believe this book should be received with the same acclaim. Following a far from pleasant divorce, Lizzie and her siblings move out to a village with their ponies, dog (Princess Debbie Reynolds) and their play writing, whisky drinking and initially purposeless mother in tow.

The fear of becoming “wards of court” leads them to seek the most appropriate man to be at the helm of their family. Set in the 1970s, and told from the perspective of the middle child, Lizzie, this book is laugh-out-loud funny. Although I found it a little slow initially, I did end up reading the second half in one sitting and, by that point, I had a real emotional attachment to this slightly mad family and their array of idiosyncrasies.

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