Monday, November 20, 2006

Teasing the velvet

What strikes most about Sarah Waters's work is the subject matter. She inverts the gaze and brings sauciness to her writing. The reader is constantly surprised at the way Sarah pushes the boundary further and further as one delves deeper into Tipping the Velvet. Nancy, or Nan, is the most innocuous narrator, if there was one, and it is this innocence that becomes edgy when she speaks about tarts, toms, and rent boys. Nan approaches the world with eager eyes and always finds herself in the thick of lusty settings. Sarah cleverly upturns Victorian notions of propriety while giving her viscously imagined plot details a Dickensian verbosity.

In an interview on her website, she calls Walter's My Secret Life, an all-time favourite. A nineteenth-century erotic memoir, My Secret Life, according to this website, has over 4000 references to the F-word. Sarah is more controlled on that account, certainly, but Walter is clearly an influence. (Was he the inspiration behind Maud's evil uncle in Fingersmith?)

She is very comfortable with the language, understands its twists and turns and italicised stresses perfectly, and employs them to good effect. One jumps from one page to the next, hungering for the stuff of Nan's life. Always honest, even brutally so, Nan's innate goodness comes across when she decides to start dressing as a boy to escape men's stares. When she starts roaming London streets at nights as a boy, she realizes she still catches the attention of men, only this time, those like that, like her. This is both fascinating and troublesome for Nan. This new gaze, she says, doesn't pester her, rather, it seems like she has been revenged - for minding it in the first instance. She decides to turn into a rent boy.

This other-ended sense of morality informs all of Sarah's work. Her characters are not conventionally nice, yet are capable of life-affirming empathy when one least hopes for it. And therein lies redemption for emotional outcasts who so densely populate her novels.

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