Monday, 28 March 2011

REVIEW: Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters (4.5*)

(Virago, 1999)

The quote from The Independent on Sunday that graces the back of my edition, which describes the novel as 'a sexy and picaresque romp through the lesbian and queer demi-monde of the roaring Nineties', pretty much sums it up! It follows the fortunes of Nancy Astley, a Whitstable oyster girl whose life is turned upside down when she sees 'masher', or male impersonator, Kitty Butler performing at her local music hall and falls head-over-heels in love. Before she knows it she is employed as Kitty's dresser, and when an opportunity arises to go to London with her, she seizes it with both hands.

And so Nancy's new life begins. As she and Kitty become closer and closer, living together in a theatrical boarding house, she finds herself performing alongside her new sweetheart as a masher in a top-billing act, under the stage name Nan King. But betrayal is just around the corner, and from there Nancy's story is a whirlwind that takes her through the depths of despair into a career masquerading as a Soho renter, a spell as a spoilt and much-lauded 'kept boy' to a wealthy mistress, and finally on to contentment and happiness amongst the 'toms', or 'women-lovers', of the East End.

This was one of those books that I made a conscious effort to read carefully, slowing down and savouring the historical detail, the complex relationships between the wonderful characters, and the slow unfolding of Nancy's tale. The writing is superb, moving effortlessly between delicious description, earthy conversation and risque sexiness. Waters has obviously done a massive amount of research but wears her knowledge lightly - reading the book is like reading a classic novel, thoroughly comfortable in its period style and voice. It may have been my first Sarah Waters, but it definitely won't be my last!

Source: An old friend bought me this book as a birthday present.