Winifred Watson is lucky to have escaped genre classification in her Wikipedia entry, though she didn't escape a giddy dumbed-down movie adaptation of her book. Still, the superb publisher that rescued her masterpiece Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (one of my favourite reads in the past ten years—a very funny understated satire with compassion) and published it in a typically beautiful edition (I love their attitude to covers, fly papers, and bookmarks) doesn't genrepak her either. As they say about themselves, "Persephone Books reprints neglected classics by C20th (mostly women) writers. Each one in our collection of 86 books is intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written, and most are ideal presents or a good choice for reading groups."
She reminds me of Gail Carriger, who is fated to be listed in Wikipedia, and I hope frustrates all attempts to label her. She is an emerging great writer whose first novel, Soulless, in the Parasol Protectorate Trilogy, proved to me that a reader can be all ready to dismiss something because it's everything that reader hates—and lose so much.
I can't say the book didn't warn me. It says on the cover, A novel of vampires, werewolves, and parasols. Vampires! Yawn! Werewolves! Zzzz. It's even Steampunk! Parasols? Well, uh. Another meal-in-one proudly made just for you by Rehash. Our promise to you: You can't overcook it because it already is. Each meal comes with its own fun-fashion plaque-scrubbing-toothpick parasol, but all our meals are guaranteed fiber-free. Find our products in the Unfresh section of your supermarket.
I'm not much of a partier but I ended up at her launch party. It was in such good taste that I looked for a seller of the book the next day because there were none offered in the launch and no readings and praise for her. A model book launch, imo! Only amazing food with great attention to historical detail, and a wonderful array of people from the book (her friends in fiction-mufti) acting as hosts for the party. They (and her mother) made the food. I would have shoved one of her mother's Scotch eggs (not the overly corrected modern "Scottish" ones but the classic, good enough for Eliza Acton, who called them "Scotch") down the front of my dress to eat in private finger-licking greed later, but some Amazon sylph sidled up and purred "protein bomb". She was tall enough to look down my dress too, and would have seen my third breast, so all I could do was flit my fingers amongst the heavenly candied peel.
Still, nothing would have convinced me I would like the book, but I had to do something in the hell that is a Qantas flight home to Australia—and its cover does entice. Once I opened the book, I resented having to close it for any reason, till the end, when I really truly sighed with pleasure. Soulless now resides on my physical bookshelf, quite an honour that the thousands of other books of mine could only wish for. They get: piles.
That said, I said that Carriger is an "emerging great writer", and at the moment she does seem to be a caterpillar almost surfeited with praise. Soulless is on my shelf not because it is a great book, but because it defied my expectations, and gave me expectations. This book is a delicious read, a joy, a very light read with no pretensions—and that is a great achievement. It is, however, a very deliberate construction, its elements as costed as every ingredient in a Heinz All-Day-Breakfast. The characters in Soulless manage to avoid being caricatures by the skin of Carriger's skill, and issues in the book won't bruise any reader's prejudices or grey matter. I'm not saying Message and Politics and Meaning are necessary. Indeed, save us from them as they are often served out. Shelves aplenty groan with the weight of self-righteous and self-justifying inedibles. (Which reminds me of the guy who complained that he just wanted to go to an axe-murder movie for a break from living in war zones, and what did the movie give him? A political message!)
But I think that if Carriger were to put her soul into a book, really scrape her soul into it like the beans from a vanilla pod or the skin from her hands, that could be a truly great book. Carriger has the skill to be a master of subterfuge—to serve up liver-and-sump-oil cocktails if she mixed them, and have us demand from her: More! as we lick the parasol stirring sticks.
Carriger has perfect timing, made me laugh out loud till I was obnoxious, and would definitely change Wodehouse's mind about female novelists. He would admire her. Part of her strength comes from understatement, something rare in today's fiction. She takes as much care with her choice of words as Wodehouse, Wilde, Flann O'Brien, and Mae West—they hit the spot.
Another element of Carriger's fiction might surprise. There's a cherry in the lump of chocolate. In contrast to her sex scenes, Houellebecq's are as sexy as a drunk's grope (actually, he doesn't need the contrast—that's just how he writes), and there's not a Manolo whoreshoe in her books. Her rompcomerotics won't, I think, age any more than the fun of doing something forbidden at high risk of getting caught. It doesn't matter what she writes about, however. With her expertise, she could write novels so boring she could win top lit awards—but she has chosen well: her skill as a novelist to delight is already so well developed that it could be called voluptuous; and she flaunts it. But there is no category for General Delight, more's the pity.
The only criticism I have of this trilogy (for which Orbit deserves high praise) is that the otherwise perfectly suited model with character plus on the covers hasn't Alexia Tarabotti's curves. She needs to either eat some Scotch eggs, or shove them down her dress.
And by the way, Carriger's blog is as delightful as her books. Food, tea, mores, and more.