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The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

I’d never heard of Sarah Waters until very recently, and now I’m astonished that this enormously talented woman-centered author wasn’t already a favorite of mine! Now that I’ve read one book, I’m sure to read more by her.

The Paying Guests almost feels like three novels in one. It takes place over the course of several months in 1922 near London, with the same characters, but the book’s feel shifts from a light domestic drama to something much more intense and dark as the novel progresses. The plot of the novel takes a long time to get going, yet I was interested enough in the characters and their minor conflicts to keep reading. At about 200 pages, the plane is ready and fueled, and the story takes off.

The novel starts as a married couple arrive to live in rented rooms at the decaying home of Frances Wray and her mother. Frances is a single woman who frets about cleaning and cooking. But soon it comes out that she is not single by choice: she has given up her woman lover because the relationship upset her mother. She befriends Lilian, the wife. Their growing closeness is the subject of the first part of the book. In the second part, Frances and Lilian find themselves in a complicated situation and face a moral dilemma. The third part involves the consequences of their decision.

In an essay in The Guardian, Waters states that the novel is about “the negotiations that must be made by a passionate relationship as it braves the tangle of courage and cowardice, generosity and meanness, splendid ambition and awful misjudgment that constitutes ordinary life.” Waters succeeds in making 1922 feel “ordinary” – details of post-World War I life in London are worked in naturally, and I hardly felt I was reading a historical novel, so convincing was the setting. She also succeeds in making both Frances and Lilian ordinary in a complex, nuanced way. Their actions are believable and understandable given the situations they find themselves in.

My only complaint is that although the novel is over 500 pages long, when I got to the end I did not think the story had been resolved. I felt as if Lilian and Frances still had big decisions ahead of them. But perhaps that was by design: it is left to the reader to speculate on what they will do next, given what we know of their personalities and situations in life.

The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake

The Translation of Love, by Lynne Kutsukake

Before I read this book, I was familiar with the plight of the Japanese in North America who were forced into internment camps during World War II. But I had never given a thought to the situation in Japan after the war. The Translation of Love by Japanese-Canadian author Lynne Kutsukake shines light on the human story behind the American occupation of Japan after the end of the war.

The story is told in third person through the eyes of several people, both Japanese-born and people of Japanese heritage from North America. A Japanese-Canadian girl, Aya, and her father are deported to Japan after their time in an internment camp. While struggling to fit in at school, she is befriended by Fumi, whose sister, Sumiko, has been earning money by dancing in bars with American soldiers.

Two other important characters include Japanese-Americans Matt and Nancy, who work as translators for the American government. For the most part, the Japanese people welcomed the American occupiers, and many wrote letters to General Douglas MacArthur, who was the leader of the occupying forces to bring democracy to Japan. These letters needed to be translated into English, and this is where the title of the book comes from.

The characters’ longings and desires are clearly drawn, and I was engaged by their intersecting stories. Fumi wants to send a letter to General MacArthur asking him to find her sister, and she enlists Aya’s help. They end up giving the letter to Matt who, along with Nancy, tries to find Sumiko among the myriad bars in Tokyo. Meanwhile, Sumiko develops a problem of her own and flees to a hidden location.

Lynne Kutsukake’s writing style is clean and straightforward. She weaves in relevant details about life in Japan to help the reader imagine what it would have been like to live there at that time both as an American (who had access to more wealth and food), and as a Japanese person (many of whom struggled to make ends meet). Here is the beginning of chapter 1, just before Fumi meets Aya:

Ever since her sister had gone away, Fumi looked forward to the democracy lunches with a special, ravenous hunger. The American soldiers came to her school once a week with deliveries, and although she never knew what they would bring, it didn’t matter. She wanted it all, whatever it was. Sometimes it was powdered milk and soft white bread as fluffy as cake. Sometimes it was a delicious oily meat called Spam. Occasionally it was peanut butter, a sticky brown paste whose unusual flavor—somehow sweet and salty at the same time—was surprisingly addictive.

The characters in this novel are gentle and appealing. I was surprised at the lack of anger and resentment on the part of the Japanese, but perhaps this was true to life.

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

I first read Remarkable Creatures several years ago while researching books for a blog post on Women Scientists in Novels. It features two women fossil hunters in the small English seaside town of Lyme Regis in the early 1800’s. When I read it again to prepare this review, I enjoyed it all over again.

The novel is based on two real women fossil hunters: Mary Anning (a working-class woman who discovered complete skeletons of ichthyosaurus, plesiosaurus, and other ancient animals) and Elizabeth Philpot (an upper-class woman who is known for her collection of fossil fish). Chevalier used their real friendship as a basis of her story, including actual details such as the fact that Mary survived a lightning strike as a baby. The story is told in alternating chapters from the first-person points of view of Mary and Elizabeth.

After the death of her father, 11-year-old Mary and her family struggle to make a living by finding and selling “curies” (fossils, which were called “curiosities”) to tourists. Mary is especially good at spotting fossils. Elizabeth, a grown woman, moves with her sisters to Lyme Regis from London in order to live within the means of their inheritance, and she develops an interest in the fossils littering the beach. Despite the difference in age and social class, the two become close friends based on their shared interest in fossils. The novel follows them for several years, as Mary grows up and Elizabeth grows older.

Conflicts arise around religion (is the universe much older than the Bible suggests?); gender roles (men collectors often buy from Mary and then pass off the skeletons and fossils as their own); marriage vs. spinsterhood (Mary falls in love with an upper-class collector and hopes to avoid the stigma of being a spinster like Elizabeth); and science (are Mary’s bizarre skeletons truly creatures from another era, or are they hoaxes?).

Chevalier does a great job of evoking the small, hilly town of Lyme Regis and its fossil-strewn cliffs and beaches. Here is Elizabeth’s first description of the beach where she will spend so much time:

It is as if there are two villages side by side, connected by a small sandy beach, where the bathing machines are lined up, awaiting an influx of visitors. The other Lyme, at the west end of the beach, doesn’t shun, but embraces the sea. It is dominated by the Cobb, a long gray stone wall that curves like a finger out into the water and shelters the shore, creating a tranquil harbor for the fishing boats and trading ships that come from all over. The Cobb is several feet high, and wide enough for three to walk along arm in arm, which many visitors do, for it gives a fine view back to the town and the dramatic shoreline beyond of rolling hills and cliffs in green, gray, and brown. (p. 13)

Chevalier used real names throughout the book, and this caused me some confusion, because many of the men have names that start with “B” (Bullock, Birch, Buckland) and I had trouble keeping them apart.

Remarkable Creatures would be a good companion read to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which takes place in the same time period, and one section of which is set in Lyme Regis. I love Jane Austen’s novels. However, it is certainly refreshing to read about women of that era who are not fixated on marriage, but are devoted to their own interests and their own work.

Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama

Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama

Although there’s not much of a plot in Women of the Silk, the appealing characters, detailed descriptions of setting, and themes of women’s independence and communal living, kept me reading. The novel follows Pei from childhood as she leaves her poor family and joins a “sisterhood” of silk workers in a village near Canton, China in the early 20th century.

I enjoyed learning about the production of silk thread from cocoons, as well as the communal houses the girls and young women live in. Pei, along with several other women, decide to forego marriage and dedicate themselves to silk work. They even stage a successful strike for shorter working hours. The invasion of China by Japan changes everything, and Pei and her “sisters” must make some wrenching decisions.

The writing style of this novel is simple and direct. Shortly before two of the women undergo the “hairdressing” ceremony which marks their entrance into the silk sisterhood, Pei spends some time with her best friend, Lin:

When they reached the main road, Pei wished that she and Lin had walked in another direction, away from all the noise and suffocating crowds. Her mouth felt dry and sour. It was a week before Chen Ling’s and Ming’s hairdressing ceremony, and the girls had been given a rare day off from the factory while waiting for a new shipment of cocoons. Pei felt she’d seen so little of Lin in the past year that it was as if they had just awakened from a long sleep, still awkward and shy. (p. 83)

The author, Gail Tsukiyama, is an American of Chinese and Japanese ancestry. She became interested in the lives of women silk workers while researching southern Chinese history. The meandering feel of the novel could be attributed to the fact that Tsukiyama started the novel with “culture but no story,” according to an interview with Elizabeth Sherwin.

I was interested enough in the lives of Pei and her friends that certain inconsistencies bothered me. For example, when Pei first begins to work in the silk factory, her hours are from 5:30 am to 7:30 pm – 14 hours per day. Yet the girls and young women don’t complain about this, and seem to have plenty of free time to visit restaurants and pursue hobbies. Later in the book, the factory is said to increase the hours to 14, which causes the women to strike and demand a 10-hour work day.

Despite puzzling details like these, this quiet, lyrical book is a worthwhile read. Tsukiyama also wrote a sequel entitled The Language of Threads.

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of March and several other historical novels. But it all started with her first novel, Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, published in 2001.

I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy Year of Wonders because it is about a year filled with disease and tragedy. I’m glad I read it—it’s a beautiful, thought-provoking novel. It is narrated in the first person by Anna Frith, a servant to Michael Mompellion, a rector of a small village in 17th century England. When plague hit the village, Mompellion convinced the villagers to voluntarily quarantine themselves in order to avoid spreading the disease to neighboring villages.

Brooks based this novel on the true story of the village of Eyam, which is known even today as the “plague village.” During a holiday, Brooks, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, came across the village and was so fascinated by its story that she decided to write a novel about it. There really was a rector who convinced the villagers of the need for a quarantine. In one of his letters, this rector mentioned his gratitude for his maid, and from this line, the character of Anna Frith was born.

The novel begins at the end, after the plague has passed, when the rector has lost not only his beloved wife but also his faith in religion. Anna tends to him as best she can, but he barely eats and refuses to leave the house.

The story then goes back to the spring before the plague set in. Anna, a widow with two young sons, accepts a young tailor as a lodger. A bolt of cloth ordered from London, where the plague is raging, brings the disease into the village. The lodger dies, and soon others nearby die as well. Villagers begin pointing the finger at two women healers, accusing them of being witches. When these women are murdered by several villagers, the horror and guilt of this deed lay the groundwork for the quarantine that Mompellion asks the villagers to agree to.

Anna and her employer, Elinor Mompellion, begin to educate themselves about herbs, and serve as the only healers in town. This is just the first of many trials and transformations that Anna goes through in this surprisingly action-packed novel.

Brooks sprinkles the text with archaic phrases and words which add to the historic feel without hindering the overall meaning. I read the novel through without bothering to look up such words as “whisket” (a small basket) and “posset” (spiced milk with ale).

Anna’s voice is spare, honest, and warm, and you will not regret the time you spend with her.

Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival was a surprise bestseller when it was first published in 1993. This short novel (140 pages) is based on an Athabaskan Indian legend handed down to the author from her mother. Velma Wallis is an Athabaskan Indian who grew up in a remote Alaskan village.

The novel takes place above the Arctic circle near the Yukon River, in an unspecified time before the arrival of the Europeans. As the title indicates, the story concerns two old women, Sa’ (75 years old) and Ch’idzigyaak (80 years old). When was the last time you read a novel about the adventures of elderly women? These women have a habit of complaining about their aches and pains as an excuse to avoid hard work. During a cold autumn, at a time of scarce food, the chief of their band decides that the women must be left behind as the younger members move on in search of food.

At first the old women are stunned, and even resigned to dying. Yet they have to admit that they are still capable of hard work. With the help of some tools and supplies they have been left with, they successfully hunt and trap small game. Still, the long, cold winter looms ahead. Will they be able to survive? They decide to set up a more permanent winter camp along a creek teeming with fish that Ch’idzigyaak remembered visiting years ago, and begin their trek to this location.

In writing this book, Velma Wallis relied on her own skills and knowledge of surviving off the land in a remote area. I enjoyed the descriptions of how the women went about the tasks of daily living: maintaining the fire, making snowshoes, using caribou skins to fashion a sled, and digging a temporary snow shelter.

The writing style is simple and direct. Here is a paragraph just after the women learn they are to be left behind:

The two women sat old and small before the campfire with their chins held up proudly, disguising their shock. In their younger days they had seen very old people left behind, but they never expected such a fate. They stared ahead numbly as if they had not heard the chief condemn them to a certain death—to be left alone to fend for themselves in a land that understood only strength. Two weak old women stood no chance against such a rule. The news left them without words or action and no way to defend themselves. (p. 7)

Illustrations by Athabaskan Indian artist Jim Grant help readers picture the characters and scenes. This lovely, inspiring book in the vein of My Side of the Mountain can be enjoyed by middle and high school students as well as adults.