“Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it. Some quirk of the Kentish coastline makes Whitstable natives – as they are properly called – the largest and juiciest, the savouriest yet the subtlest, oysters in the whole of England.”
Those first lines of Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet sucked me right in and never let me go.
We follow our narrator Nancy from her childhood as an oyster-girl in Whitstable to her new life in London where she follows – smitten – ‘masher’ or male impersonator Kitty Butler, and becomes a music hall star herself (… and more, but I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that life is full of highs and lows and Nan’s is no different). It is a coming-of-age tale set in Victorian England, full of love (forbidden or otherwise) and bawdiness.
This book feeds and fills your senses. The sights and sounds and smells of Victorian England are all there. It starts from the briny world of Whitstable, where Nan slogs away as a child as an oyster-girl:
“Some people like their oysters raw; and for them your job is easiest, for you have merely to pick out a dozen natives from the barrel, swill the brine from them, and place them, with a piece of parsley or cress, upon a plate. But for those who took their oysters stewed, or fried – or baked, or scalloped, or put in a pie – my labours were more delicate. Then I must open each oyster, and beard it, and transfer it to Mother’s cooking-pot with all of its savoury flesh intact, and none of its liquor spilled or tainted.”
And moves to the rowdiness of the music halls:
“When we arrived, breathless and flustered but ready to sing, the air was thick with shouts and bellows and screams of laughter. The two roughs had hold of the comic singer by the ankles, and were holding him so that his head dangled over the flames of the footlights, in an attempt to set fire to his hair.”
Waters’ books aren’t just about the atmosphere of course. She creates these great whole characters who are so full of heart and are flawed. She doesn’t make life easy for them. They stumble, they fall, and might not really be able to really pick themselves up for a while. But that’s life. Her readers are given a similar experience, for she doesn’t hold their hands but lets them find their own way. (Buried in Print says it all so much better in her review of The Little Stranger).
A part of me wants to rush out and read every Sarah Waters book left (I have previously read Affinity and Fingersmith, which means that there’s still The Night Watch and The Little Stranger to be read), but the other part hesitates… there are only two more books left! Maybe I should wait until she publishes another one before I touch either of them. Then I will know that there are more out there waiting for me. What a quandary!