Friday, 18 December 2015

Review | Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters


by Sarah Waters

My Rating: 

This delicious, steamy debut novel chronicles the adventures of Nan King, who begins life as an oyster girl in the provincial seaside town of Whitstable and whose fortunes are forever changed when she falls in love with a cross-dressing music-hall singer named Miss Kitty Butler. 

When Kitty is called up to London for an engagement on "Grease Paint Avenue", Nan follows as her dresser and secret lover, and, soon after, dons trousers herself and joins the act. In time, Kitty breaks her heart, and Nan assumes the guise of butch roue to commence her own thrilling and varied sexual education - a sort of Moll Flanders in drag - finally finding friendship and true love in the most unexpected places.

Check out my reviews of Affinity, Fingersmith and The Little Stranger!

I've been slowly but surely making my way through Sarah Waters' novels; I'd already read Affinity, Fingersmith and The Little Stranger, so when I was in the mood for another Sarah Waters story I thought it was about time I picked up her debut. I'm sad to report that this is probably my least favourite of Waters' novels so far, but that doesn't mean I didn't like it.

Firstly, I think having read Fingersmith and The Little Stranger this year and adoring them both - I loved The Little Stranger an unbelievable amount - I couldn't go into Waters' debut with huge expectations because, as with most writers, her skill as a storyteller has improved with each novel. So far she's published six novels, The Paying Guests being her most recent release, and this year I read her third and fifth novels, so to go back to her first is quite a jump.

For anyone unfamiliar with Sarah Waters, she writes primarily queer historical fiction; five of her six published novels have queer female protagonists, and even the main female protagonist of The Little Stranger can be read as queer if you like. In terms of sexual diversity in historical fiction, Sarah Waters is a fantastic voice, and with Tipping the Velvet she burst into the literary world with an action-packed, steamy lesbian romp of a novel.

Something I must say is that, of the novels I've read so far, Tipping the Velvet is the most sexually explicit, the title itself is Victorian slang for cunnilingus, so if that kind of thing makes you uncomfortable I'd definitely recommend you stay away from this one. There's a lot of sex in this book; I don't think it's gratuitous, the novel itself is basically a young girl's sexual coming (pardon the pun) of age story, but it's certainly a large part of the book so if you do find reading about sex uncomfortable I don't think this book is for you.

One of the things I loved most about Tipping the Velvet was how I couldn't have possibly guessed what was going to happen. It begins in the small town of Whitstable where eighteen year old oyster girl Nancy Astley sees Kitty Butler, a cross-dressing music-hall singer, performing at her local theatre and falls hopelessly in love with her. The story moves quickly; before we know it Nancy has followed Kitty to London as her dresser, and her story progresses from there and turns into a different story every few chapters. There is such a difference between the opening chapter and the final chapter, and I got the sense that Waters had a lot of fun writing this book.

The book actually takes place over a number of years; by the end of the novel Nancy is twenty-four, and she certainly has a lot of adventures in those six years. Sarah Waters has said that some of her favourite books to read are classic Victorian novels, and Tipping the Velvet feels like a tip of the hat to all those classic novels which were initially serialised; Nancy goes through so much that I could imagine her story being told in small, dramatic installments over a few months.

I did enjoy this novel, but I didn't love it, and that's mainly because of Nancy. I wouldn't say I disliked Nancy - in the world of historical fiction she's a very interesting heroine - but I found it hard to relate to her, and some of the decisions she made had me wanting to shake her. She frustrated me a lot more than the other heroines I've encountered in Waters' stories, and if I don't completely like a main character I'm not going to love her story. Plus, as I mentioned above, Tipping the Velvet is her debut novel, and I didn't think it was quite as accomplished as some of her later work in terms of the way it's written; because it's all written in hindsight, with an older Nancy telling us her story, I found some sections of it to be told a lot more than shown, so I couldn't immerse myself in the story as much as I could with some of her other novels.

That being said, there are so many books out there about men having lots of sex and treating women terribly and 'finding themselves' that it was really refreshing to read a book about a woman who has more than one sexual partner, and doesn't apologise for it. Ultimately I think I liked what this story was doing more than the story itself, but I did like it even if I didn't like it as much as some of Waters' other work.

I'm glad I read it, though, and I'm looking forward to crossing The Night Watch and The Paying Guests off my TBR in the new year!

If sex doesn't bother you and you want to try out some of Waters work then, with this being her debut, I think Tipping the Velvet is a good place to start. If not, personally I think one of the best ways to introduce yourself to Waters' work is to read Fingersmith.

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