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MLF Chapter & VerseMLF Chapter & Verse

The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

Review: Sarah Waters

Festival blogger Desmond Bullen enjoys an afternoon in the company of Sarah Waters…

Most obviously in the distillation of the Victorian Gothic with which she made her name, Sarah Waters’ stories are suffused with anticipation; the vertigo of dread and hope before a kiss or betrayal makes the world anew.

The anticipation in the Royal Exchange is not quite so charged, but it is perceptible, nonetheless. Her audience, predominantly – but far from wholly – female, resonates with a restrained fervour, a polite adulation.

The object of the room’s admiration, when she arrives to a cascade of proprietorial warmth, cuts a distinctive figure. For an author who shapes her words across disparate histories, she is – most of all – unmistakeably herself, responding to the closely read questioning of Rachel Cooke’s interview with the precision and lightness familiar from her prose.

At ease in her armchair, if mindful of those to whom seating in the round leaves her blindsided, Ms. Waters – first and foremost – speaks of her latest novel, The Paying Guests. Whereas the temporal upending of The Night Watch exchanged anticipation for exhumation, and The Little Guest was all tension and little release, Waters’ sixth novel teases out the anxiety in the clandestine with control and empathy.

A further period piece, The Paying Guests sees her in unfamiliar times (the 1920s), if more familiar territories.     Waters’ terrain, as in her first novels, is the domestic; the claustrophobic and often ephemeral interiors in which one can be oneself. The desire between Frances and Lillian is at the same time more precarious and more thrilling for the ever-present peril of exposure.

Tragedy seems the inevitable release, but – when it does arrive – it is nevertheless an explosion of unexpected brutality, with consequences far crueller than either protagonist can have come to fear.

The passage Ms. Waters reads, however, precedes the narrative’s twist of the knife; an idyll of flirtation during which it seems gloriously possible that Frances and Lillian might somehow shrug off the burdens of their households, and – in spite of it all – escape the prison of their times.

It precedes an eager rush of questions from the audience, the kind that testify to the devotion of reading and re-reading, each with a sincere prologue of thanks for the books Ms. Waters has written; – how does she achieve the historical verisimilitude of her dialogue, what gives rise to her image systems, why is she so fascinated with the music hall? In this case at least, the author has the readers she deserves; intelligent, attentive and perhaps a little smitten.

And the audience? As they queue with books in hands and hearts in mouths for a signature and a sentence, their anticipation seems more than amply rewarded.


Desmond Bullen is a chimney sweep from Wigan who dreams of winning the Isle Of Man T.T. race.