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Six Degrees from boxing to murder

It’s time for another round of Six Degrees, a monthly meme hosted by Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is to begin with one book title, and then make a chain of six other books.

This month we begin with Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk which follows the experience of an unnamed man who joins an underground fighting club to help him deal with insomnia. Since I find boxing and bare knuckle fighting abhorrent, I’ve not read this book and have no intention of doing so in the future.

But let’s stick with sleep disorders and move onto a novel I have read.

The-Elected-MemberThe Elected Member by Bernice Rubens won the Booker Prize in 1970. She pulls back the curtains of a seemingly respectable Jewish family to show the misery of drug addiction. Infant prodigy; brilliant barrister; the apple of his parents’ eyes… Norman Zweck appeared destined for even greater things until at forty-one he becomes a drug addict, confined to his bedroom, at the mercy of his hallucinations and paranoia. 

Though its more than seven years since I read this book I still recall some of the first scenes which described the hallucinations Norman experiences when he tries to sleep. The worst are shimmering silvery creatures that he sees crawling towards him from the skirting boards in his bedroom.

Bernice Rubens hailed from Cardiff, the capital city of Wales (thought I’d just slip in that patriotic bit of info). Though highly regarded in the seventies, she’s largely forgotten about now, much like the author of my third title: fellow Booker winning author Stanley Middleton. 

holidayMiddleton wrote 44 novels before his death in 2009. You’ll have a hard job finding any of them in bookshops today which is a terrific shame.

Holiday, his Booker winner takes place largely in the head of Edwin Fisher, a university teacher in his mid-30s, who has taken a solitary holiday in an east-coast resort town after the collapse of his marriage.  Like so many people in the early 1970s, he stays in a boarding house. If you want a glimpse of how the Brits used to holiday before the advent of the package tour to Spain, this would be a great book to read.

LarkinlandMention of boarding houses takes me to Larkinland by Jonathan Tulloch. This novel is a brilliant evocation of Hull in the period when the poet Phillip Larkin was head librarian for the university. Tulloch’s central character, Arthur Merryweather (a version of Larkin) arrives at the library to begin a new job, moving into digs run by Miss Glendenning, occupying a tiny room furnished with narrow bed, unshaded lamp and peeling wallpaper.  Miss Glendenning believes firmly in “keeping up appearances”, running her establishment with strict rules about mealtimes though she seems blissfully unaware that some of her tenants are not all that fine and upstanding.

paying_guestsMiss Glendenning is typical of the predicament experienced by many middle class women in post war Britain, particularly those whose husbands had died in the conflict.

In book number four of my chain, Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests,  we encounter one such genteel household whose members are driven by necessity to let out rooms in their over-large house. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances didn’t bargain on having to share their home with a working class couple. They find the Barbers rather gaudy and lacking in the finesse that they are accustomed to within their own circle of acquaintances.  But Frances finds her life becoming dangerously entwined with that of the Barbers.

exposureThe Paying Guests is a novel about actions, taken in the spirit of friendship, that have far reaching consequences. 

For my fifth book in the chain I’m moving forward a few years to the time of the Cold War, a period when your friend, neighbour, or partner, could turn out to be a spy.  In Helen Dunmore’s Exposure, suspicion falls on the father of a rather ordinary middle class family, living in an ordinary terraced house. All he did was to help a friend, but now he is under arrest. To escape public attention and humiliation his wife Lily spirits the children to a small village on the English coast. But before she leaves, she buries a briefcase, believing that she is protecting her family. What she will learn is that no one is immune from betrayal or the devastating consequences of exposure.

Trains are a recurring theme in Exposure. The novel opens with a man taking a train to a home he’s never been in before, Lily, experiences fear every time she hears the whistle because it brings up a past that she has hidden while for her husband, the sound makes him think of escape.

La bete humaineLet’s stick with novels in which trains play a key role for the last link in my chain. I could easily have chosen Anna Karenina or Murder on the Orient Express, but I’m going with. Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine. (The Human Beast). This contains a brilliant realisation of the world of railways and railwaymen, with a high octane scene involving a runaway train. But it’s also a novel which depicts uncontrollable passion, leading to murderous intentions,   – a fitting way I thought to end a chain that began with passion, although one hopes that a bout in the boxing ring doesn’t result in death.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

paying_guestsThough I like to support authors from my home country of Wales, Sarah Waters is one writer that hasn’t grabbed me as yet. I was put off her first novel Tipping the Velvet when I learned  the central character is a music hall star (I’m a straight drama girl and shudder at the prospect of any stage performances involving music). I did give Fingersmith a go but found it rather dull. With that poor track record you might well wonder how I came to end up reading her most recent novel The Paying Guests? The answer is quite simple – my mother who pressed it upon me after her reading group raved about it. Our tastes rarely coincide so I opened it without a great deal of enthusiasm and probably wouldn’t have bothered except for the fact it’s set in 1920s Britain which is a period that fascinates me.

This is a time when, as a consequence of the Great War, the old constraints of gender and class began to break apart.  Waters depicts this through a mother and daughter who, robbed of their men folk, find it increasingly difficult to maintain the standards they had enjoyed as members of a moderately wealthy genteel strata of society. Widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances are driven by economic necessity to find paying tenants (they are far too refined to call them lodgers) for rooms in their large sprawling villa in the Camberwell district of London. The idea is anathema to Mrs Wray’s middle-class sensibilities  but with her husband gone and her sons dead, there is little choice. The house is crumbling around them, Frances tries to wages a daily war against grime and dust but it’s more than she can manage alone and they simply cannot afford to pay for a servant.

Frances does have her moments of doubt when the Barbers first move in.

The thought that all these items were about to be brought not the home – and that this couple who were not quite the couple she remembered, who were younger and brasher who were going to bring them and set them out and make their own home, brashly, among them – the thought brought on a flutter of panic. What on earth had she done? She felt as thought she was opening the house to thieves and invaders.

At first Len and Lilian Barber do little to disturb the household other than creating awkward little moments when they have to go through the kitchen to use the outside loo or when Frances is discovered on her knees scrubbing at the hallway tiles, looking every inch a charwoman instead of a well-bred and educated woman.  Len Barber is an unpleasant figure with his leering behavour, his boorish attitude towards his wife and his regular boasts about his burdgeoning career in the insurance business. His wife ‘Lil’ is a vivacious creature who horrifies Mrs Wray by sleeping until late, using all the hot water for her bath and then floating about in a brightly coloured kimono. But Frances slowly finds herself drawn to Lilian and her liberated, brash ways. An affair ensues with disastrous consequences. As the two women try to resolve the situation they discover their standards of decency, loyalty and courage dissolve in the face of their fear of discovery.

Did I enjoy The Paying Guests?

Yes, in part. The first part that is.

This is the part which establishes the characters and leads to the torrid affair between Frances and Lilian. It’s full of convincing detail about the stultifying nature of Frances’ life from which Lilian provides a liberation. A frequenter of political meetings in the past, the intellectual side of her life has become closed in by the walls and furniture of the house she shares with a mother who cannot let go of the past.  The  ‘scuffs and tears she had patched and disguised; the gap where the long-case clock had stood…the dinner gong, bright with polish, that hadn’t been rung in years’ become symbols of the confinement she feels within the house. Where once she had enjoyed a deep and loving relationship with another woman, now her only escape is the occasional bus trip to visit a friend in another part of the city.  Such is her life until the day Lilian walks through her door. With her brash outlook on life, her scissors, curling tongs and dressmaker’s eye, Lilian reawakens the old Frances, transforming her physically and emotionally.

Waters dramatises with considerable effect the idea that women in this period began to consider how to take control of their destiny and to reshape their lives in a new social order. If only this had continued to be the substance of the second half of the book. Unfortunately Waters changes tack and instead of a novel about relationships and social change we get more of a thriller with a death, a police investigation and a courtroom drama.  This drags on interminably with ever more twists and turns and plenty of tears and recriminations. Frances’ passion and pain is entirely believable but since we don’t have access to Lilian’s inner voice, the exploration of her character is rather lacking in substance.

Not a dud by any means but I could have done with more fizz and sparkle in the second half.

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