The hands of an oyster girl

Great bit of writing from Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters’ debut novel:

‘Thank you, Miss Astley,’ she said – she already had my name from Tony – ‘for coming to see me.’ She held out her hand to me, and I lifted my own in response – then remembered my glove – my glove with the lavender bows upon it, to match my pretty hat – and quickly drew it off and offered her my naked fingers. All at once she was the gallant boy of the footlights again. She straightened her back, made me a little bow, and raised my knuckles to her lips.

I flushed with pleasure – until I saw her nostrils quiver, and knew, suddenly, what she smelled: those rank sea-scents, of liquor and oyster-flesh, crab-meat and whelks, which had flavoured my fingers and those of my family for so many years we had all ceased, entirely, to notice them. Now I had thrust them beneath Kitty Butler’s nose! I felt ready to die of shame.

I made, at once, to pull my hand away; but she held it fast in her own, still pressed to her lips, and laughed at me over the knuckles. There was a look in her eye I could not quite interpret.

‘You smell,’ she began, slowly and wonderingly, ‘like -’

‘Like a herring!’ I said bitterly. My cheeks were hot now and very red; there were tears, almost, in my eyes. I think she saw my confusion and was sorry for it.

‘Not at all like a herring,’ she said gently. ‘But perhaps, maybe, like a mermaid …’ And she kissed my fingers properly, and this time I let her; and at last my blush faded, and I smiled.

Love the way that mermaid word just pops out in that scene–a fantastical creature indeed.

Chapter 8 of "The Little Stranger"

Chapter 8 of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is terrific writing, a diversion from the mainline haunted house tale that is the whole of The Little Stranger. It’s all about an older doctor realizing he has been in love with a younger woman, and things go from good to bad to worse. Below are a few paragraphs of first-rate writing:

Mindful of our filthy footprints, we went around the house to the garden door. The Hall, as usual now, was unlit, and, though the day was sunless, to move towards it was like stepping into shadow, as if its sheer, rearing walls and blank windows were drawing to themselves the last of the light from the afternoon. When Caroline had wiped her shoes on the bristle mat she paused, looking up, and I was sorry to see lines of tiredness reappearing in her face, the flesh about her eyes puckering faintly like the surface of warming milk.


Finally, at just after one, when the music had finished and the lights had come up, she reappeared at the table. She came with Brenda, both of them fresh from the dance-floor, with blurred eyes and mouths. She stood a couple of feet away from me, yawning, and plucking at the bodice of her dress to free it from the tug of moist skin beneath, exposing an edge of brassière strap at her armpit—exposing the armpit itself, a muscular hollow shadowed with fine stubble and faintly streaked with talcum. And though I had longed for her return, when she met my gaze and smiled, I felt, unaccountably, the sting of something that was almost anger, and had to turn away from her. I told her, rather stiffly, that I would fetch our things from the cloakroom, and she and Brenda went off again to the Ladies’. When they came back, still yawning, I was relieved to see that she had tidied her hair and made a neat, conventional mask of her face and throat with lipstick and powder.


But I am not Seeley. It was a long time since I had kissed a woman; years, in fact, since I had held a woman in my arms with anything other than a rather perfunctory passion. I had a brief flare of panic. Suppose I had lost the trick of it? And here was Caroline beside me, possibly as uncertain as myself, but youthful, alive, tense, expectant … At last I took my hand from the steering-wheel and placed it tentatively upon one of her feet. The toes shifted as if tickled, but apart from that she made no response. I kept the hand there for perhaps six or seven heartbeats, and then, slowly, I moved it—just moved my fingers across the fine, unresisting surface of her stocking, up over the arch of her foot and the jut of her ankle bone and into the dip of heel behind it. When again she kept quite still, I inched the hand steadily higher, until it was held in the cleft, slightly warm, slightly moist, between her calf and the back of her thigh. And then I turned and leaned towards her, putting out my other hand, meaning to catch at her shoulder and draw her face to mine. But the hand, in the darkness, found the lapel of her coat; my thumb slid just beyond the inner edge of it, and met the start of the swell of her breast. I thought she flinched, or shivered, as the thumb moved lightly over her gown. Again I heard the movement of her tongue inside her mouth, the parting of her lips, an indrawn breath.

Fingersmith and "duel" narrations

A week ago Michael Dirda praised a new novel by Sarah Waters. I hadn’t heard of Waters or her talent, so I went to my local shop and picked up Fingersmith, her 2002 novel, which I finished reading yesterday. I now want to read all her novels. Such is the influence of a good critic-reviewer, and, more importantly, a very good novel.

Fingersmith was full of surprises, including one of my favorite literary devices, a dual narration of the same events. This device works well in modern classics like Fowles’ The Collector and a contemporary classic like Priest’s The Prestige. I sometimes call these “duel narrations”, because a good dual narration fights with perception, the reader’s and the characters therein, and to write well of events from multiple viewpoints requires rare talent and skill.

Maud and Sue, the storytellers of Fingersmith, are surrounded by colorful minor characters–my favorites are the smut-inclined uncle, and a moaning sick woman in the Sucksby house that nobody ever sees and who is ultimately forgotten. The fog and soot soaked London and country settings seemed more influenced by Conan Doyle and Poe’s Usher house than by Dickens (Waters gets compared to Dickens, but I like her better–her characters say “fuck” often), and Waters’ way with fright and suspense seems better than any American novelist writing today.