Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sarah Waters' "Tipping the Velvet": Book Review

This début shows the research and the diligence of its author, with a doctorate in English. As with "Fingersmith" (see my recent review), 19c London comes alive. The narrator convinces you by a literary, yet everyday tone that, as in both novels, for me remains Waters' narrative strength.

One passage stands out as a neat symbol for the passions beneath the surface that try to break free, this being the 1890s, of the time and its well-known restrictions. "I looked at the river again-- at that extraordinary ordinary transformation, that easy submission to the urgings of natural law, that was yet so rare and so unsettling." (101) The narrator and her female lover gaze at the marvel of the Thames frozen over.

And, if in less a confined, incarcerated sense than the criminal-Gothic-madhouse haunted "Fingersmith," Victorian conventions contend convincingly with rebellion among its women. Waters captures the tone of how a smart, yet uneducated, woman might come of age among, in turn, the music-hall theatre, as a kept woman of the bohemian "toms" of a lesbian demi-monde, and then as a Socialist suffragette street-corner speaker. The three parts of the novel correspond to the storyteller's rise, fall, and rising again.

The book jacket blurb contained a major spoiler, so beware. I will veer away from plot points. Waters tends, for me in both novels I've read, to be more confident in period details, emotional resonances, and observed conventions. Her story structure here as it follows the arc of the novels written 110 years ago tends not to surprise, perhaps, as much as entertain. I found myself less intrigued by the actual plot, and pages seemed to wear on with dialogue that seemed accurate enough but too wordy and too labored in the telling of an efficiently moving, fast-paced, story. I may be jaded, but I wanted it to hurry up and not dawdle so much.

Trumpeted as an erotic lesbian romp, the sex in it, while more explicit and abundant than in the study of repression that motivates "Fingersmith," is still rather sparse. It may be less than some readers anticipate. What Waters does well, and will do even better in her next novel, is to balance the sensuous with the spare, the presence of the beloved being usually less common than her denial or absence. This creates tension that Waters, at her best, puts to good use to energize her tales. (Posted to Amazon US 1-21-10; "Fingersmith" also reviewed there recently.)

(P.S. I liked the cover of the 2004 DVD adaptation more than the book jacket.)


tamerlane said...

I watched the BBC TV adaptation, and was mildly entertained. BBC has a knack for taking serious ribald material and making it puerile & dorky. (cf. Fanny Hill.) I'd rather discrete or raunchy, but not an incongruous compromise.

Imagine BBC's "Tipping" as Anne of Green Gables meets Rubyfruit Jungle. Ugh. It's your classic, first-puppy-love/coming-of- age/turning-tricks-in-alleyways/finding-your-true-self-in-the-end kinda story. The actress playing the lead is engaging, cute, and has a damned fine singing voice. Her drag stage performances are a treat in and of themselves. Oh, and, while I love eating oysters (and "oysters"), the repeated visual allegory of shucking & serving them became tedious.

I assume Waters' prose was more adept, and ill-used by the film adaptation.

(Ever since I told Netflix I really liked "Aimee und Jaguar", this stuff is all they recommend now.)

Fionnchú said...

Oysters: such an obvious trope that I wearied of it very early on. The tone of the narrative remains Waters' best quality, and the music hall sections I imagined transferred with more vim and vigor than the socialist-soapbox era as titillation goes. And the middle part, with the "toms," well, how could that be soporific? If it was, a poor adaptation, but even in the book, the episodes seemed to wear out their welcome. Conversations related in triple-decker fashion can show faithfulness to Victorian prose, but they can also dull we Netflix, fast-forward modern smart set. "Puerile" & "dorky": what a combo for "Fanny Hill." Almost makes me want to seek it out-- I found the book surprisingly tame!