I’ve read everything British novelist Sarah Waters has ever written. The London-based novelist has a way of absolutely engrossing her readers in whatever time and place she picks for her historical fiction—you can taste, smell and see the 1880’s England of her novel Tipping the Velvet, even though you’ve obviously never been. She takes the tools and specialties of an academic—she has a Ph.D. in Literature—but uses the presentation and sensibilities of a novelist to create her books. Here are short reviews of her novels:
Tipping the Velvet (1998). Waters’ first novel took her eighteen months to write and is set in 19th century Victorian England. The novel focuses around the character of Nan Astley, an oyster girl from England. She falls for a male impersonator named Kitty Butler and gets in with the act. After Kitty turns out to be different than Nan expected, Nan is left to make her own way on the mean streets of England. The not-so-ladylike ladies she meets surprise the small-town girl in ways she never would have expected when she was growing up.
Affinity (1999). Waters’ second book is also set in Victorian England and is focused around the bent of spiritualism—bringing ghosts from the dead, communicating with banging and Ouija boards and the like—that was rampant in this period. The main character, an unmarried woman named Margaret Prior, decides to start visiting prisoners in a women’s prisoner near here hometown. She starts to form more than a friendship with a spiritualist imprisoned in the jail named Selena Dawes. The novel takes advantage of Margaret’s unhappy life—her father’s recent death, her own aging and her unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Fingersmith (2002). Set in Victorian England again, Fingersmith tells the story of Sue Trinder, a small-scale criminal who is sent by her crime family into the home of wealthy Maud Lilly, who lives with her uncle Christopher in the countryside. Sue is sent to pose as a maid to get Maud to marry Sue’s accomplice, the Gentleman. Then, after they are wed, Sue will commit Maud into an insane asylum and take all of her money. The second part of the book is told from Maud’s perspective during which everything you thought you knew about Maud, her uncle or the book itself gets turned on its head.
The Night Watch (2006). The Night Watch is Waters’ first book set outside Victorian England. It is set during 1940’s London during and after World War II. Unlike her previous books, The Night Watch doesn’t have a main character or a single narrator. Instead, it focuses four people—Kay, Helen, Viv and Duncan. The book was short listed for the Man Booker prize and the Orange prize in 2006.
The Little Stranger (2009). The Little Stranger is different from the rest of Waters’ books in that there are no gay or lesbian characters in it. Instead, the book focuses on a country house in 1940’s England. It follows the themes of a gothic ghost story—is the house haunted or is it all made-up—and focuses on the happenings that conspire to kill two of the main characters and send another to a mental hospital.