GW was selected as one of the 12 book clubs who are shadowing the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2015. Our book is The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters and these are the final book reviews.
What is very interesting about these reviews is the honesty. As writers as well as readers, we are used to using our critical eye when reading creative work. From the reviews we think it unlikely The Paying Guests will win the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction.
Greenacre Writers Book Club Deborah Knight
Overall: I think Sarah Waters wrote this 'novel' with a TV screenplay in mind, not as a work of fiction. She has had a number of her novels televised and so the first 200 pages were all scene-setting. Very visual - well-written and well-researched, like she was dressing the stage, but no excitement or drama in the first third at all.
As a novel (or as a film, rather than a drawn-out TV drama): it needs a dramatic event early on, to draw the reader in. The claustrophobic decor (and neighbourhood) demands some blood or semen splashed around to give the reader an idea of the violence throbbing beneath the bourgeois surface. Likewise, with our introduction to her lesbian/Boho past life - we need to feel we are shunted from safe suburbia to unfamiliar surroundings, and getting out of it by the skin of our teeth ... breathless and a bit scared when we do so.
The lodgers: I didn't believe that such a middle-class family - forced, as they were, by financial demands to take in lodgers - would have been so easy-going with them. Let us be frank and say over-familiar - especially as it was the first time for both Frances and her mother. All sorts of constraints would have risen up, and readers would have appreciated those being eased away in order for the friendship between F and L to develop. Also, memories of the dead brothers should have been used to emotionally decorate the house, thus setting up a foil to Leonard - and, later, his horrible brother Douglas.
The main characters: I thought Francis was a bore, her mother a little less so (given her upbringing, more generous in her heart) and Lilian just a flibbertigibbet. I couldn't be invested emotionally in either Frances or Lilian. Leonard and his brother were boring. The boy on trial was pitiful, his mother more so, but they all felt like characters in a TV costume drama, ultimately.
Details: Given our author's complete lack of squeamishness vis-a-vis lady parts in sexual activity, not to mention her love of grimy kitchen detail, why did it it take till page 157 for a chamber pot to appear? And then only in a case of dire emergency? Truly, they were a normal part of household life, especially when there was only one lavvy, in the back yard. (The use of, and discreet emptying of, chamber pots - and where they were emptied - could make a PhD subject.)
Also, did working-class hoodlums chew gum in 1922? It struck a wrong chord when I read it - and much was made of it, like an instruction for a film director (?) I have always understood it became a feature of tough-guy behaviour 'over here' during and after the 2nd World War (movies, GIs). I may be wrong, but Google today told me that the first chewing gum ('spoggy') factory opened in Britain in 1927.
Summary: I usually give novels 50 pages before I decide, 'Ey up, it's not worth it.' So I wouldn't have finished this one if I hadn't committed to do so for the group.
Greenacre Writers Book Club Carol Sampson
I am nearly finished. Am finding the second half more interesting than the first half. It started well, then slowed down and is now picking up speed. What I am finding though is that although I think the characters are believable in their roles I'm not particularly engaging with any of them. I thought by this stage I would feel more empathy or care about the outcome but I'm not feeling that. If France's or Lily were to hang i wouldn't be too bothered - if you know what I mean! Sounds heartless but I just havent any feelings for them either way. Their characters had promise but have not developed sufficiently. Despite this I am still quite enjoying it
Greenacre Writers Book Club Anna Meryt
The book is about a young woman and her mother, fallen on hard times since the end of the Great War. They decide that the only way to survive is to take in lodgers – a young couple ‘from the clerk class’. Frances, after a long build up, begins an intense secretive lesbian affair with Lilian the wife, at a time when homosexuality was not recognised or understood. Day by day the situation deteriorates into further chaos. With a clever police inspector sniffing around like a bloodhound, the tension builds from funeral to coroner’s inquest.
The pace of the book is slow and methodical for the first half. You know something bad is going to happen in the end but getting to some action felt like a plod. The drama of the ‘killing’ took me by surprise. The post-war world they are living in is so hedged in, rule bound and predictable – perhaps to counter the unpredictability of the terrible war. But after the murder/accident it began to take on a thriller like intensity which I actually began to enjoy. I became completely hooked in then, and read to the end. Would the police find the killer?
It was a good read eventually with its themes of class snobbery, gradual loss of integrity , guilt and the consequences of not being able to be who you are in a world changed irrevocably by the war, trying to recover its equilibrium.
Having just checked the 'Which is your favourite book on the shortlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015?' On Tuesday 2nd June at 4.30pm, this is how it looks:
Don't forget to vote. Have to rush now as some of us are going Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Readings this evening at the Southbank Centre.