Friday, November 19, 2010

Sarah Waters's The Night Watch and Fingersmith

I guess this could qualify as a Forgotten Books post, even though the books in question are not forgotten in the least. I've seen Forgotten Book posts about Edgar Rice Burroughs and Christa Faust's Money Shot, so I guess the rules are not very strict.

I've finally completed my share of the reference book on historical novelists. I read two of Sarah Waters's novels, the only two translated in Finnish, and liked them quite a bit. Doing this book has been quite a task. As you may remember, I didn't like Arturo Perez-Reverte's books and I almost ended up hating Robert Harris's novels on Cicero. I must confess skipping pages a lot. There were also other writers that left me utterly cold. The one exception - before Waters - was Tracy Chevalier, who writes in a terse prose I happen to like, and she handles difficult themes (women's oppression and stuff like that) pretty deftly.

One could compare Sarah Waters to Chevalier. Both write about women's oppression and their silence in the by-gone centuries. Sarah Waters adds a theme of being lesbian in the Victorian age. Both write books that are not easily categorized - they have elements of a crime novel, they have some experimental bits in their books (Waters has less of them), both are eminently readable. Waters harks back to Charles Dickens and his time, while Chevalier is a strictly 20th century writer, with a style maybe reminiscent of Jean Rhys.

Fingersmith is more strictly a historical novel, set in the 1860s. Some low-lifes, portrayed grotesquely à la Dickens, are trying to get money out of a peculiar old guy living in a mansion outside London, collecting pornography. They force a young girl to be a maid in the house and one of the low-lifes starts to flirt with the daughter of the old man in order to get married and inherit the old man. Everything seems to succeed well, but then Waters throws a very nice twist in the tale and manages to bring new themes into her book: the violent treatment of women in the mental institutions. There's yet another twist in the book, which makes it a relenting read. The last hundred pages are very exciting and tense. The love story between the two girls is touching, and Waters's view of Victorian pornography is interesting.

The Night Watch is set in London during the bombings of WWII. The book is episodic and starts from the end, moving towards the events taking place first. It works marvellously, even though the book didn't hold my interest as well as Fingersmith. The scene in the middle, with the abortion going wrong, is very, very strong.

I recommend these two books quite highly.

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