Tag Archives: queer fiction

The Paying Guests: Books to Avoid Reading On Your First Week of Carpool

Underwear Fashion

Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is set in 1922 London. Setting is important here because the backdrop of postwar changes in economics and class, social and gender expectations and disaffection with the grand truths of justice deepen the themes explored in this erotic noir. (I didn’t realize I was choosing a novel with erotic scenes when I picked it up from my shelf (the last of the holiday haul), though I ought to have known better having read – and enjoyed – Waters’ The Little Stranger and The Night Watch. Reading it during my first weeks of a carpool positions me to give this advice: be prepared to squirm for ten odd pages).

The novel follows the life of Frances as she struggles to maintain the family home in the absence of male income (see Remains of the Day). Forced to take on ‘paying guests,’ she and her mother are joined in their aging home by the lower-class, freer spirits of Lilian and Leonard Barber. If the first half of the novel traces the budding… relationships between Frances and the couple, the second half takes a decidedly different turn in exploring love tested not by societal expectation, but by conscience and trust. Rather than fuss too much about who loves whom, the novel instead explores the nervousness of (new) love and the doubt that accompanies it (and it goes to some plot extremes to do so).

I very much enjoyed this one. Well crafted, expert character development, written with careful and evocative language (*cough*) it is a delight to be immersed in.  Though I’ll admit that after A. pointed out the frequency of the word ‘queer’ in the novel I was somewhat distracted by its repetition (a project for some student to trace and explore diction in Waters’ work – the way she works the connotations of the early 20th century against that of the contemporary reader).

In entirely unrelated matters, I finished reading the novel in the campus gardens during lunch today. In writing this post a bug has flown out of my hair and now I can’t stop checking to make sure there aren’t more insects all. over. me. Such are the hazards of having this literary vice.


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Filed under Bestseller, British literature, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner

Middlesex: Brilliant Narration


I did it again. I’m midway through my next book and am now posting on *Middlesex* with the inevitable consequence that a lot of the thoughtful commentary I had stored up for this novel has seeped into the pages of the next. Oh well. Such is the life of this reader, and so you’ll be left with this less than fullsome review of what is a tremendous novel.

Principally tremendous because of its narration. The first person narrator, Cal(lie), weaves her (fictional) autobiography with the biographies of her parents and grandparents in the style of the best of these genres: stories not so much about the people themselves, but about the eras in which they live and the collective movements that shape their individual  experiences. So it is that with Cal(lie) we traverse the economic booms and depressions of Detroit – in one of the better novels-of-a-city I’ve come across), the civil rights movement and the emergence of a queer politics in San Francisco. 

Not only that, but the narrator’s willingness to imagine the perspective of others allows a quasi third person limited narration that glimpses at the reaction of her family members. An subtle, but powerful narrative move, too, comes as the narrative shifts to a conscious third person – you know the sort teenagers use when they’re telling their friends something funny – but in this case it’s not for comic effect, but rather because the narrator is so far removed from what is happening to his body and his identity that he fully loses “voice” of these sections of the narrative.

The story itself is compelling enough without the masterful narration, but the compelling plot – hermaphrodite man raised as girl discovers his masculinity in a painful climax of scientific/medicinal control over the body and the hegemony of the “normal body” – certainly provides a rich space for the narrative voice to reverberate.

And it’s true, nearly a week after finishing *Middlesex* I’m still struck by the singularity of Cal(lie), not as a “monstrous” body (as some characters in the book describe him), nor as an exceptional story of medicinal mishap and the ubiquity of the intersexed child, but rather as a singular expression of the bildungsroman. I can think of no better narrative exploration of the challenges, delights, horrors and ecstasies of coming-of-age. Descriptions of Cal(lie)’s attraction to the “Obscure Object” and the hesitating, sputtering, development of their relationship is quite simply brilliant.

So yeah. I really liked this one. I didn’t think I would. I should say that it sat on my shelf for years. I guess I thought it would be some kind of obsessive trip into gender/sexuality politics and that the whole book would be about the “monstrous” hermaphrodite body, but really it’s a book about growing up, about falling in love, about finding yourself, about fitting in to your family, about self-acceptance, *and* a book about being a hermaphrodite in a world that doesn’t always know exactly what to do with slippery identities. 

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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Prize Winner