Sarah Waters can spin a yarn. She can conjour up a world. She can keep you entertained. But what she absolutely can’t do is create realistic characters or convince me that all her creativity isn’t simply an elaborate means to the banal end of trying to convince me that every woman in Victorian England was a lesbian.
From the get go, Waters creates a detailed Victorian world for the setting of this novel and here’s where her strength definitely lies. She’s done a huge amount of research to get such a vivid backdrop painted so well. I enjoyed this immensely, particularly areas of London which have changed so remarkably since the late 19th century.
This was her first novel though, and it really shows in the characters she creates and her storyline. The characters are pretty flat, predictable and, apart from Nancy herself, not really given the attention to detail that they deserve. There’s no real explanation of their inner worlds or what has made them the way they are. If I was less cynical, I’d say that this was Waters’ skill in rendering them from the perspective of a
narrator in the naivety of youth. But I don’t think this was intentional at all.
And the storyline is pretty much as implausible as it gets. If it wasn’t for a few astounding coincidences, Nancy would have died in the gutter about a third of the way through the novel. But, at the last minute every time, Waters has managed to come up with something to keep the wheel turning.
Nancy grows up on the north Kent coast, the daughter of a working class oysterman living a simple, traditional life that has pretty much vanished despite the continued fame of Whistable oysters even to this day. She gets a crush (her first of very, very many) on a local music hall actress who whisks her off to London and a new life that is about as alien to her roots as oysters are to people from Paraguay. This new turns out, as you suspect, to be too rosy to last and cycles of despair and elation then move you through to the heavily contrived end of the novel. Here, like a badly-written pantomime where everyone needs to be on stage for the finale and curtain call, she meets pretty much everyone in the novel (except her forsaken family) in a matter of a few hours and Waters ties everything up in Disney-esque sweetness.
However, all this can be forgiven as an author learning her ropes as she shows us that she has promise as a writer if she would just keep at it and consider her characters more. What I find less easily tolerated is the sheer fantasy of the lesbian world she attempts to portray to us.
Nancy has a crush on woman she sees on stage. She befriends Kitty and shares a bed with her in London. It takes some time before their relationship is consumated, but they become lovers. It’s clear though that Kitty has issues with the lifestyle and while Waters could have grasped this and explored the clash between Nancy’s assurance of her identity and the dichotomy in Kitty’s mind, no sooner has this been revealed than the novel takes an almighty plot heave and Nancy finds herself in a completely different world which she simply seems to accept rather than question as it involves her in some sexual activity that most sane people, whatever their sexual orientation, would find themselves conflicted by.
It is in making her way through this alternative world and coming out the other side of it that the novel just became a bit ridiculous for me. Pretty much every female Nancy meets from that point on is a lesbian who Nancy lusts after (and I do mean lust). This gets so implausible that, a few pages before the end of the novel, this exchange occurs between Nancy and a companion:
“That’s Mrs Costello,” she said, “Emma’s widowed sister.”
“Oh!” I had heard of her before, but never expected her to be so young and pretty. “How handsome she is. What a shame she ain’t – like us. Is there no hope of it?”
“None at all, I’m afraid. But she is a lovely girl…”
I’m sure Mrs Costello would be gratified to hear that she is “lovely” despite the fatal flaw of there being no “hope” of her homosexuality. It’s good to know that we who apparently happen to find ourselves heterosexual have some value in the eyes of those who aren’t. It’s as if Waters was thinking that if she can cram as many lesbians into her novel as possible, she can convince us that as it was apparently rife in the 19th century and that I should accept it as such in the 21st. To borrow a phrase from the same era: close, but no cigar. Actually, she didn’t even come close.
Thus, as a vehicle for the LBGT agenda which Waters undoubtedly intended it should be, this novel is a wreck. For a novel that really explores the issues surrounding growing up gay, study A Boy’s Own Story or even the much more contemporary, although far less balanced, Oranges are not the Only Fruit. Waters may argue that she’s very familiar with these novels. That’s great, but she can take home what she brought to the party.
Key: Legacy | Plot / toPic | Characterisation / faCts | Readability | Achievement | StyleRead more about how I come up with my ratings