Posts Tagged ‘sex’

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Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.

There is so much to admire about this book that I feel almost guilty that I didn’t love it. And I feel I might struggle to explain why without losing sight of the fact that it is a great book and beautifully written in places.

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As you’d expect from Waters, The Paying Guests inhabits a very specific historical moment. In this case, she takes is to the social upheaval of the 1920s and the interbellum years. The aftermath of The Great War looms over the novel: a generation of men have been lost; soldiers returning have found themselves unemployed and unsupported; the division between the gentry and clerk classes are dissolving. Again, as you’d expect of Waters, the historical details are utterly convincing; her language never jars you from that period; her dialogue feels completely authentic. The voices of her characters and the way that their language is almost insufficient to reflect the depth of the emotions, passions and pain her characters feel is wonderfully evocative. It somehow recalls my grandmother.

Waters locates the writing in a traditional grand house in Champion Hill, London – a house used to a team of servants and a family of five before the war, but which now houses only our main character, Frances Wray, and her mother. Saddled with debts, the Wrays take in a married couple – Ken and Lillian Barber – as lodgers in order to maintain the cost of the house upkeep. The novel opens with the Barbers arrival and the tension created by that arrival: the hesitation over whether to offer or even drink tea with the Barbers on their arrival; the awkward maneuverings and negotiations between two families finding a space between cool civility, pragmatic commerce, resentment and an uncomfortable enforced intimacy.

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It comes as no surprise to those who have read Waters before that the awkward intimacy between Francis Wray and Lillian Barber becomes something more romantic and passionate.

And Waters is just as fabulous writing about emotions as she is in capturing a voice. Just read the following extract:

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It is one of the most beautiful and natural analogies of the quickening of love that I have read. Domestic. Sensuous. Gorgeous. And the contrast between the narrator’s lyricism and the characters’ almost inarticulate and gauche attempts to communicate those feelings was exquisitely painful.

Locating the story firmly within the Champion Hill house also worked wonderfully. It became claustrophobic and enclosing… reflecting the limitations and restrictions imposed on the characters by society and morality and family. The house almost became a character in its own right and a reflection of Frances’ own psychological state.

It is the second half of the novel, however, that lost me a little. The novel shifts from the drama of Frances and Lillian’ love to a more plot driven crime thriller. The turning point is quite horrific to read but something gets lost.

I stopped liking either of the two characters.

Their inability to communicate, which in the first part of the novel, was endearing and overcome through their contact – her depictions of skin are beautiful – became frankly irritating. Their lack of agency</em, of control, became tedious. I'm sure that it was a realistic portrait of the lack of agency women had in the 1920s and the way the patriarchal machinery of society robbed women of exactly that self determinism.

However, as a novel, it alienated me.

I didn’t find their actions and reactions credible in the second half of the novel… even though I know that Waters is a writer for whom credibility and authenticity are paramount.

It is odd though that this is the second lesbian novel I’ve read in a row, following on from Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal . The comparison is interesting: where Catton’s novel is arch and self-aware and overtly literary, Waters is real and – I keep coming back to this word – authentic. Thinking about the two books together, and being fully aware of the subjectivity of this, it crystallises what it is in books that really grips me: it is the artfulness, the language games, the twisting of not just the plot but the very relationship I have – as reader – with the writer and his or her creations.