The Paying Guests ~ a personal journey

The last time I remember having rushed out to get a book that was just hot off the press was 8 years ago back in 2006, and it was for Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. I had only discovered Waters’ writing in the year before that. Up till then, I had not heard of this writer before, and had no clear idea what her books were about. I happened to have gotten some book vouchers that had to be used and while browsing the bookshop one day, I was intrigued by the cover of a book I saw on the shelves. The visual effect of that pair of pink shoes against a black backdrop, caught my attention. Flipping the book open, I read the opening lines.

Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it.

And then, remember it I did. I suddenly remembered that I have in fact read these lines before! It was then I realized that my first acquaintance with Waters was actually another 5 or 6 years earlier on, when I had read an online excerpt of the first chapter of Tipping The Velvet. I remembered I was impressed with the writing then and was quite taken in with the narration, and would have loved to read on. But my accessibility to books back then was not as easy and conveniently available as they are now, thus I didn’t manage to get hold of the book at that time. And somewhere along the line, it just got slipped out of my mind altogether, as Life (and love, unrequited & undeclared as it was, though) got in the way. I was just stepping out into the working world around that time and in those few years that followed, books and reading were regrettably relegated to the backseat.

To cut a long story short, Waters’ debut novel sparked off more than just my reading mojo when I finally read it. It gave a voice to that which I had been struggling with in silence in the 5 years or so prior to that. I was thrilled with the discovery of this new voice and quickly went on to read Affinity, followed by Fingersmith shortly after. And each time when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, I was confounded and amazed once again at how she manages to pull it off.

After finishing Fingersmith, I was desperate to have an outlet to talk about the book. That sent me launching out into cyberspace and soon I had found my way onto the Virago forum, which at that time was all abuzz with several discussion threads going on following the newly released BBC adaptation of Fingersmith. That forum would later turn out to be the platform by which my life’s course would take a crucial turn. Just like the changing of tracks along the railway lines, steering the train off in a completely different route altogether.

Just like how different things would have been if Tess’ first letter of confession had been read by Angel before their wedding, and had not gotten slipped under the carpet instead, in Hardy’s Tess of d’Ubervilles.

Just like how things would have been very different if Lilian Barber had not stepped forward and made her way across the kitchen to give Frances Wray a kiss on the lips, in Waters’ latest offering, The Paying Guests.

And that is not a spoiler, in case you are worried, for the crux of the story lies in the implications and consequences after that. There are many things about the book that made me love it as much as I do. Not least of all being Waters’ beautiful writing and masterful pacing in the telling of the story. All so exquisitely well done. It has been ages since I last read a book that has caught hold of me so completely, that it was as if I too had lived through all those moments along with Frances Wray, the upper middle class daughter of a household that has fallen on hard times after the war, and had resorted to taking in the Barbers, a young married couple from the ‘clerk class’ as their ‘paying guests’.

After losing both her brothers in the war, followed by the untimely death of her father who left behind nothing but a pile of debts (and a collection of furniture pieces that turned out to be Victorian fakes), Frances is left to clean after the mess and take charge of matters, which includes caring for her aging mother, Mrs Wray, as well as the upkeep of the house. I loved the way Waters managed to capture and portray the dynamics in the mother and daughter relationship with such subtle sensitivity.

The way Frances has to constantly struggle to keep it all in even as she is aware of the wary eye that her mother is keeping on her.

They were practically strangers. She hadn’t had an inkling of Lilian’s existence until six weeks before. Now she’d catch herself thinking of her at all sorts of odd moments, always slightly surprised when she did so, able to follow the thought backward, stage by stage, link by link, this idea having been called to mind by that one, which in turn had been suggested by that… But they all had their finish at Lilian, wherever they started. […..]

Her mother must be imagining now that she had some sort of crush on Lilian. She was warning her – was she? Was she looking into the future, seeing disappointments, tears? She couldn’t guess then, how dizzyingly far beyond a crush Frances and Lilian had already travelled.

The way Mrs Wray struggles to confront her daughter with all her fears and suspicions.

She went to one of her father’s chairs, leaned heavily against the back of it. And when, a moment later, she looked up, her mother was staring at her – and there it was, that fear, that suspicion, showing again in her expression. [….]
‘I want to believe you, Frances. But all your life you’ve had these – these queer enthusiasms. If I were to think, even for an instant, that that woman had involved you —’
‘There’s nothing, Mother.’
‘Do you promise me? Do you swear it? On your honour?’
Frances wouldn’t answer that. For a moment they pulled against each other, both of them frightened as much by the oddness and tension of their pose as by anything that had or hadn’t been admitted.

The way both mother and daughter, although sharing a common grief, yet had to do the grieving separately, unable to be transparent with each other.

She wanted to sit at the foot of the staircase with her head in her hands. ‘Oh, Mother,’ she wanted to say, ‘our hearts are breaking. What on earth are we to do?’
But she hadn’t spoken candidly like that to her mother in about twenty years. Even after her brothers’ deaths, the two of them had done their crying in private.

But above all these, the thing that really gave this book that special place in my heart, was how closely I could see Frances’ character reflected in myself. I could relate to each of her thoughts, her fears, her doubts, her regrets, her struggles….. in fact, I could almost picture myself in her shoes. That was why I found the book to be such a vivid reading experience. I was living it.

Having lost my own father unexpectedly in a similarly untimely manner about 6 years ago, the burden to take on family responsibilities (& debts) were more or less shoved onto my shoulders, not quite unlike Frances. And like her, I too have an aging mother (with the same wary eyes) to consider and care for. I can understand exactly how Frances feels whenever her mother comments or complains at the way things are done (or not done) and how it seems to be never good enough no matter how much effort  has been put into it. And I can also understand how Frances felt when she realized that what she had thought of “…. as a sort of bravery”,  thinking of the things she had had to give up/ sacrifice in order to take on her expected role as the dutiful daughter/ sister, was in actual fact just a cover for her own cowardice.

Sometimes things become a muddle. They become such a muddle, Mother, that they turn into a sort of quicksand. You take a step, and can’t get free, and —’
She couldn’t continue. Her mother waited, looking troubled – but looking weary, too. Finally she sighed. ‘What a fight you’ve always made of everything, Frances. And all I ever wanted for you were such ordinary things: a husband, a home, a family of your own. Such ordinary, ordinary things.

Such ordinary, ordinary things. Yes.
But this is no ordinary book.
Cosy Book’s Darlene wrote in her review that this book WILL leave a mark.
It certainly did, with me.
What about you?

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In which I try not to be a spoilsport….

I was surprised to have been the recipient of a fellow blogger’s nomination for the Liebster Award over the last weekend (and have since been squirming in my seat trying to get myself out of the task!) :p

As you would all have probably noticed, I have been steadily and progressively turning into a lazier and lazier blogger by the day, in recent months. I have not been putting up any posts that required much thinking or writing, simply because I don’t seem to find the time and energy to do so lately. And whatever little time and energy that I do seem to have, I always think I should put it to better use, probably for reading rather than for trying to wring out something worthy of a post that probably makes no difference to anyone reading it anyway. Sort of.

That is not to say that I don’t value this blog anymore. I do still love the fact that there is this little space out here that I can call my own. I guess I just need to remind myself of the reason for doing this in the first place. It was meant for pleasure, not duty. I just need to make sure it stays that way. 🙂

And so, back to the Liebster Award thingy, while I was tempted to just decline the nomination and go back into hibernation mode, I really did not relish the idea of being a complete spoilsport, either. So, after the initial struggle of getting into the right frame of mind to take on the task, I decided to (partially) play along. That is, I will participate in the first half of the award, which involves providing 11 facts about myself, and to answering the 11 questions set by Anna, my nominator from ink stains on a reader’s blog (which by the way, is a great place to spend time in, and one I am enjoying very much). However, I’m afraid I won’t be passing on the award to the next 11 nominees, as I do not wish to impose the obligation on anyone. (That is just a nice way of saying that I am actually much too lazy to come up with a set of 11 questions and bloggers to pass them onto!) :p

Anyway, here goes.
The 11 facts about myself:

1. I prefer spending time in the company of books more than with people.

2. Can be considered as an anti-social introvert.

3. Love animals.

4. But am ill at ease with babies and kids.

5. Have a phobia of walking through automatic sliding glass doors (I suffered a nasty concussion once when one of those glass doors closed in on me while I was walking out of a Toy R Us store when I was 7 or 8 yrs old).

6. Cannot stand the smell of perfume or strong fragrances, as they give me headaches and eye sores. Have resorted to holding my breath every time I need to walk through a departmental store where these are found.

7. I feel more comfortable communicating in the written form than in the verbal form, usually.

8. Biggest travel blunder ever : missed getting onto the bus from London to Nottingham 3 TIMES on the same day, during my first trip abroad with friends. (We ended up taking the bus to Manchester instead, after having missed the last bus for the day. Yes, it was shamefully unbelievable.)

9. Favourite ice cream flavour: green tea.

10. Favourite beverage: avocado milk shake.

11. I am unable to roll my tongue and pronounce the letter ‘R’ with the ‘rrrr…..’. :p

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And here are the answers to Anna’s questions:

1. Name a piece of literature you consider the best you’ve read so far?

I don’t know if Sarah Water’s Fingersmith can be considered as the best literature I’ve read so far, but it certainly was one of my best reading experiences. (By the way, have you read this, Anna?)
And although I have yet to finish (listening to) Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, it has already doubtless left me impressed enough to know that its place is among the best (along with my two other favourites: Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, and Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast.)

2. What are the characteristics of your dream home library?

Spacious yet cosy, evokes a warm yet airy feeling. Filled with all manners of books and bookish mementos that are of interest to me. Must have comfortable seating arrangements. Preferably with windows looking out to the sea or mountains.
Something like this, perhaps?

books with sea view
found this on one of The Captive Reader‘s Library Lust editions and just fell in love with it.

3. What are your favorite places for buying books?

The annual Big Bad Wolf Books Sales held over here in recent years where I have managed to get many a great haul like this, this and this. There are also a few smaller scale clearance sales held every now and then which makes for some rather enjoyable hunting grounds too. I do enjoy going online to look for specific titles and getting them from online sellers such as Awesome Books and Better World Books, as well.

4. Should philosophy be taught from elementary school?

Since I never studied philosophy myself, I wouldn’t really know the breadth and scope of it to say how much of it should be taught at what age/ stage. However, if philosophy is essentially the art of thinking, then I supposed it wouldn’t really harm anyone to be taught how to think at an earlier age? Maybe they could get started off by reading Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World 🙂

5. What does it mean to be wise? / What is wisdom?

“How can men be wise? The only way to begin is by reverence for God. For growth in wisdom comes from obeying his laws.”
(Psalm 110:10, The Living Bible)

Or to put it in The New Living Translation version:
Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true wisdom. All who obey his commandments will grow in wisdom.
(Psalm 110:10)

6. Which literary character feels like a real person to you (as a long known friend, an acquaintance maybe)? Is there any?

Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables, maybe. At least she seems like a good one to have for a ‘bosom buddy’. 😉

7. Quote one of the passages (from any book of your choice, of course) you had to stop by to reread, to note down or ponder upon?

These things – the straw, the ivy frond, the spider- had had the house all to themselves for many days. They had paid no rent, yet they had made free with the floor, the window, and the walls, during a light and volatile existence. That was the kind of companionship that Lady Slane wanted; she had had enough of bustle, and of competition, and of on set of ambitions writhing to circumvent another. She wanted to merge with the things that drifted into an empty house, though unlike the spider she would weave no webs. She would be content to stir with the breeze and grow green in the light of the sun, and to drift down the passage of years, until death pushed her gently out and shut the door behind her. She wanted nothing but passivity while these outward things worked their will upon her.

(Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent)

8. Best movie based on a book?

I can think of 3 favourites, so let’s make that ‘Best 3 movies based on a book’, shall we?
That will be (in no particular order): Stardust, Forrest Gump & Misery.
Of the three, I have only read (or rather listened to the audiobook for Stardust). I wasn’t even aware that Forrest Gump was based on a book until recently. And I really think I have no need for reading Stephen King’s Misery because I don’t believe it can be better than the movie.

9. What is the thing that fascinates you the most?

The condition of the human heart.
“The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out.”
(Jeremiah 17:9, The Message – Bible)

10. Suppose you live in several houses. Is there a book you would want to have in every one of them?

The Bible, I suppose.
And I guess I will be carrying my tablet with me to each of the different houses I go to. That way, I can at least have my virtual library with me in all the houses. 🙂

11. Would you accept the invitation to the Mad Hatter Tea Party?

No, being the anti-social introvert that I am, I do try to avoid parties at all cost.

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Done.
(Phew… that wasn’t so bad after all, I guess!) 😉

Favourite First Lines

BW open book

The American Book Review has come up with a list of 100 Best First Lines from Novels. While there were quite a few of those first lines that I could recognize  in the list, it was fun to be acquainted with many more which were unfamiliar to me. Do have a look at it yourself and see if you can spot any of your favourite openings in there as well.

Personally, two particularly memorable first lines that come to mind are :

Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have you will remember it.

Sarah Waters, Tipping The Velvet (1998)

and

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

C.S Lewis, A Grief Observed (1961)

I first read those lines of C.S. Lewis when I was twenty and grieving over the loss of my first dog, whom I have had since I was four. It was my first full blown encounter with grief, and I can still remember thinking upon reading those lines, ‘Here is someone who is really saying it as it is. This is exactly what I feel!’ Those lines managed to help express what I was quietly internalizing. It articulated the process that was taking place in my systems, when I had no way of doing it myself. And that’s why they have stuck by, even seventeen years on.  

What about the rest of you? Care to share abit on your own personal favourites?