The Paying Guests

08/29/2015 at 8:39 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

Set in post-war London, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters paints a bleak picture of how returning soldiers came back to no employment and most women were in mourning for lost sons or husbands. The pious Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances, having once being members of the genteel class, are forced to take in lodgers, a young couple of the “clerk class” to maintain their stately home in South London. The arrival of up-and-coming and fashionable married couple Lilian and Leonard Barber transforms the path in life Frances resigned herself to of being her mother’s carer as their tenancy ends up with her becoming part of a love triangle and as a result also being entangled in a complicated murder case. Frances has always been good at keeping secrets but she cannot but help battling with her conscience when an innocent life is at stake.

The Paying Guests

Source: Goodreads

This is the first Sarah Waters novel I have read so Frances revelation about her sexual history surprised me given the attitudes of the time period the book was set in. I am not sure if The Paying Guests should be categorised as historical fiction or romance or suspense because it features all those themes. Strangely enough, this book just like The Last Dance is also about adultery but of the more emotional rather than physical sort although the latter isn’t ignored. The protagonist of this book, Frances, didn’t charm me being the hard-edged soul that she was. The whimsical Lillian Barber was a bit of an enigma to me especially her actions in the last part of the novel; were those motivated by love or selfishness or revenge? The character of odd Leonard Barber was the easiest to read. Mrs Wray seems far too close-minded and very judgmental when it comes to women behaving in ways contrary to her expectations. In more minute roles, other characters also feature: Lillian’s extended family, Leonard’s confidante and business associate, Charlie Wismuth, the immediate family of Leonard, Mrs Wray’s companion, Mrs Playfair and so on.

The Paying Guests starts quite slowly so I was expecting this to be a gruelling read until the affair was discovered. However after a new and unexpected friendship blossoms between Lillian and Frances, the plot starts to move faster due to developing frustrations and mounting passions. That being said there was a lot of dwelling and reflecting on unnecessary points making me feel The Paying Guests would be a better reading experience if reduced in amount of mundane detail.

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The Strays

08/27/2015 at 10:19 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , , , )

Although fictional, the debut novel and Stella Prize winner The Strays by Emily Bitto is somewhat influenced by the story of the Heide Circle of Melbourne and is a fascinating narrative of idealised dreams, emotional sacrifices and conflicted loyalties mostly set in the atmosphere of 1930s depression-era Melbourne.

The Strays Book Cover

Source: Goodreads

Only child Lily makes a connection with Eva, the middle daughter of the Evan and Helena Trentham, on her first day at school that evolves into a complex and deep friendship. When tragedy befalls her family, Lily takes the opportunity to stay with Eva and the community of bohemian artists who are given residence to pursue their creative passions at the Trentham home. It becomes obvious this is not an appropriate environment for children as the artists are far too engrossed in their work to do any thing as mundane as looking after the kids, who need a responsible adult in charge. As they navigate their teenage years, Eva starts to keep things from Lily until she realises things have gone too far when she finds out Eva has been having a sexual relationship with an older resident artist who she had thought was interested in her and that starts the cracks in their trust. Upon being exposed, the artist who has also been upstaging Eva’s father leaves but not alone (he leaves with not one but two girls) leaving a scandal in his wake.

What stood out the most to me was how much power author Emily Bitto’s prose gave to the mediums of art and literature, also my passions. The descriptive passages were not too long-winded and the characters were of sufficient interest to keep reading The Strays until I found out how Lily responded to the invitation she received at the beginning.

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The Eye of the Sheep

08/25/2015 at 9:31 AM (Books) (, , , , , , )

9781743319598

Source: Goodreads

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna was a birthday present I received from my sister. It is mainly about the six-year-old character of Jimmy Flick, a kid with learning difficulties whose behaviour indicates he may have autism. The only person who seems to understand him is his mother, Paula. Even the local school is unable to provide him with the special care he needs and chooses to neglect him. Jimmy gets some support from his older brother Robby until the escalating domestic abuse at home starts creating a lot of tension in the family dynamics, especially after Gavin is made redundant from his refinery job and Robby chooses to pursue a life at sea because he cannot stand watching his mother get mistreated.

No-one is there to support Jimmy when life for the poor family becomes even worse when they receive devastating news about Paula that will alter the course of Jimmy’s life. Given the narrative is told from his point of view, although he doesn’t realise the future in store for him has changed, we do. During a brief period of temporary bliss, Jimmy finds a friend in Ned, his uncle’s dog who grounds him but when it comes to crunch time, can his father give up the bottle and step up?

The writing is simple and evokes a child who sees things too complex for him to comprehend: bruises on his mother’s skin; his father sleeping in the shed; disappearing bottles of Cutty Sark. It is obvious the parents are in love but the drinking is affecting the family badly. This is why Gavin, Jimmy’s father, sometimes comes off as deserving of empathy in spite of his lapses into violence. The Eye of the Sheep feels like a combination of Emma Donoghue’s Room and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time because of the juxtaposition of child-like perspective filled with hope in bleak times and curious choices of behaviour.

 

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The Luminaries

08/24/2015 at 10:24 AM (Books) (, , , , , , , )

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Source: Amazon

I am a fan of Dickens which is why I picked up Eleanor Catton‘s zodiac-inspired novel, The Luminaries, with its golden spiral formula that helped it win the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Set in 1866 in the New Zealand goldfields, the book imbues its following twelve main characters with traits of the astrological star signs.

  • Te Rau Tauwhare (greenstone hunter): Aries
  • Charlie Frost (banker): Taurus
  • Benjamin Lowenthal (newspaper man): Gemini
  • Edgar Clinch (hotelier): Cancer
  • Dick Mannering (goldfields magnate): Leo
  • Quee Long (goldsmith): Virgo
  • Harald Nilssen (commission merchant): Libra
  • Joseph Pritchard (chemist): Scorpio
  • Thomas Balfour (shipping agent): Sagittarius
  • Aubert Gascoigne (justice’s clerk): Capricorn
  • Sook Yongsheng (hatter): Aquarius
  • Cowell Devlin (chaplain): Pisces

The traditional qualities tied to each sign forms the foundations upon which Catton builds full-fledged characters. These twelve characters provide with each individual version of events the missing links in the story pertaining to a series of unsolved crimes. They are interrupted by the arrival of a stranger who will have a key part to play in a trial because he becomes privy to all their secrets. He and another set of characters associated with traditional planetary bodies listed below are also characters key to unlocking the mystery.

  • Walter Moody: Mercury
  • Lydia (Wells) Carver née Greenway: Venus
  • Francis Carver: Mars
  • Alistair Lauderback: Jupiter
  • George Shepard: Saturn
  • Anna Wetherell: The Sun/The Moon
  • Emery Staines: The Moon/The Sun

In spite of its technical prowess, the book didn’t connect with me. It didn’t give me the emotions I felt upon reading Oliver Twist, Great Expectations or Little Dorrit although it attempts some social commentary and contains all the elements of a Dickensian Victorian-era novel: a man is killed; a will is missing; a politician is hiding a secret; the governor accepts a trade off the books; an opium addict is mistreated and so on. While I hold it in high esteem for its structural cleverness, The Luminaries failed to capture my heart.

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