You might be able to tell from my gravatar that my hair was worn in a very short pixie crop. I decided to grow it into a bob, and it’s taking approximately eleventy billion years to get there. The result of this is that despite my love of all things art deco, and indiscriminate detective show watching, I cannot watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries due to serious hair envy.
Thank goodness Poirot is bald. And I don’t mind the fact that his moustache is (marginally) better than mine. So for now my experience of a fictionalised 1920s needs to be limited to novels where I can pretend that all the women have crew cuts.
Firstly, The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I don’t read many thriller-type novels, and Waters wouldn’t wholly fall into this category, but she can certainly write a page-turner and I find myself reading compulsively to reach the end as soon as possible. Set in 1922, The Paying Guests is set amongst the hardships and fallout of World War I. Frances Wray and her mother live in the mildly oppressive south London suburbs, grieving the loss of Frances’ brother in the trenches and the subsequent death of her father, which has resulted in the need for them to take in paying guests (Mrs Wray’s suburban sensibilities baulk at the term ‘lodgers’). Frances had been a suffragette and in a loving relationship with another woman before the war, but had given up both to support her mother, and live a kind of half-life:
“She was young, fit, healthy. She had – what did she have? Little pleasures like this. Little successes in the kitchen. The cigarette at the end of the day. Cinema with her mother on a Wednesday. Regular trips into Town. There were spells of restlessness now and again; but any life had those. There were longings, there were desires…”
The paying guests arrive in the form of Mr and Mrs Barber, and Frances is drawn towards the colourful and artistic Lilian:
“And that was all it took. They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening – Frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that.”
Frances and Lilian begin an affair, and the brilliance of Waters’ writing means this is set within meticulous – but never overwhelming – period detail, and is simultaneously erotic and yet with a sense of foreboding that draws you onwards:
“Only when Frances’s lips began to travel to her knuckles did she draw one of her hands free – the left hand, the one with the rings on it. She set it down to steady herself against Frances’s embrace and there was the muted tap of her wedding band, a small, chill sound in the darkness.”
I won’t say much more for fear of spoilers, except that The Paying Guests is Waters at the height of her powers, achieving a compulsive plot-driven story that is also humane and moving:
“Making her way back to the yard, looking again at the rosily lighted windows of her own and her neighbours’ houses, she had the stifling sensation that she was putting herself beyond the reach of those warm, ordinary rooms, cutting herself off forever from all that was decent and calm.”
Secondly, Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. A fictional biography of Charles Carter, golden-age stage magician, Gold’s first novel follows Carter from his childhood discovery of his vocation, through his apprenticeship in seedy sideshows, to his zenith performing the titular spectacle.
“The rarest need in life is the one met suddenly and completely. This is how it was with Charles Carter and the art of magic.”
For much of the novel, Carter is in existential crisis (not as tedious at it sounds) having lost the love of his life. There’s also the small matter of being pursued by the Secret Service who suspect him of having killed President Harding and having an arch nemesis lurking in the background, waiting to strike. The 1920s setting is perfect, perched as it is on the cusp of a new world – technology is growing apace and the old theatre traditions are dying out, while the aftermath of the war adds an extra dimension to the audiences’ need for magic:
“Six nights a week, sometimes twice a night, Carter gave the illusion of cheating death. The great irony, in his eyes, was that he did not wish to cheat it. He spent the occasional hour imagining himself facedown in eternity. Since the war, he had learned how to recognise a whole class of comrades, men who had seen too much: even at parties, they had a certain hollowing around the eyes, as if a glance in the mirror would show them only a fool having a good time. The most telling trait was the attempted smile, a smile aware of being borrowed.”
As with magicians, Gold’s art is visual, he creates such vivid scenes that this was one of those novels that I could clearly see being filmed. Although a chunky novel, it doesn’t flag and, like Carter’s show, builds to a satisfying denouement.
Carter Beats the Devil is about the illusions we accept, those we refute, the role of marvel in our lives, and when to take the leap and abandon the need to know how it all works.
“Faith was a choice. So, it followed was wonder.”
To end, the most tickety-boo, spiffingest flapper of them all, the divine Josephine Baker, who truly is the cat’s meow: