Books 2010: Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger/ Rachel Seiffert: The Dark Room

My first Sarah Waters book was, appropriately enough, her first published novel, Tipping the Velvet. In 2003 I wrote: "..less than the sum of its part, but her evocation of a Victorian London filled with gender-benders and rent boys was thought-provoking: what did Dickens and his contemporaries omit from their tales?" Sarah Waters has come a long way from the seedy underbelly of Victorian London. Some would say that her books are less entertaining these days; I would say that Sarah Waters is beginning to show some impressive novelistic chops. The Little Stranger is not Waters' opus magnum. It is an uneven novel - less sure of where it is going than Waters' other novels - and the dénouement will be too open-ended for some people. I really enjoyed it, in other words. Where once Waters threw Everything and the Kitchen Sink into her books, she leans back here and trusts herself as a writer. Her first two novels were particularly unsubtle, but The Little Stranger thrives on subtlety. I understand if other readers find its lack of resolve frustrating, but I would argue this may be the point of the novel. I said it of Alan Hollinghurst and now I shall say it of Sarah Waters: the Big Important Novel will happen at some point soon. As for now The Little Stranger has preyed on my mind that Waters' other novels have failed to do.

I have not read anything else by Rachel Seiffert and the decision to read The Dark Room was a quick 8am "I have to have something to read at lunch" grab. Twelve hours later and the book is finished. Another uneven read, but unlike The Little Stranger, the unevenness stems from an author unable to join the seams and smooth out the kinks in her material. The subject, the effect of the Second World War on Germans, is too big and too complex for Seiffert. Symbolic gestures replace genuine characterisation - the disabled boy becoming a fervent nationalist; the collaborator standing in for an absent grandfather - and the entire novel falls a bit flat. I think the second story of The Dark Room's three would make a good companion piece to Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, though, as they share similar characters and a similar setting, yet tell two quite different stories.

Next: I think it is time to move away from books set circa 1940-1950.