Set in the last decade of the Victorian era, Tipping the Velvet tells the story of a young gay woman's sexual and social awakening.
It is a novel of very diverse settings, ranging from the Whitstable oyster industry and the music hall stage to the London social scene of wealthy lesbians and the activities of early socialist activists. These worlds will come across to many readers as unfamiliar and exotic, but all are presented with great attention to accurate historical detail, with many references to actual people, events and locations. At the same time many aspects of the novel, particularly those relating to the lives of London street renters and wealthy sapphics, are presumably drawn from the author's imagination; however, their juxtaposition with historical facts (some of which are themselves very surprising!) imparts a great deal of credibility to the imaginary aspects.
Through fresh and lively descriptive writing and dialogue, Sarah Waters succeeds in bringing the Victorian period alive; she makes us realise (as perhaps every historical novel should) that the era under discussion, which we now call the past, was a very up-to-date present for those alive at the time. The evocation of atmosphere is also particularly well done: the steamy vinegariness of the oyster parlour; the androgynous glamour of the music hall mashers (male impersonators) with their carmined lips; the stark bleakness of London's streets to the poor and destitute; and the warmth and feisty camaraderie, even for the poor, to be found in the music halls and pubs.
This is an explicitly sexual book, detailing the business transactions between renter and client on the streets of Soho, the sado-masochistic scenarios played out between the dominant mistress and her 'tart', and the tenderly affectionate love-making of female partners; all of these encounters are described with a courageous degree of openness and frankness, and an acute sensitivity to the unique emotional tone appropriate to each of them.
Given its uncompromising frankness, Tipping the Velvet may not be a novel to everyone's taste, but it is a book which will challenge the preconceptions of most readers. It also reminds us that there are numerous ways of living a life, that none of us knows what lies around the corner, and that there's fun to be had in the most unlikely of situations!
Daily Telegraph: This could be the most important debut of its kind since that of Jeanette Winterson.
Independent on Sunday: An unstoppable read, a sexy and picaresque romp through the lesbian and queer demi-monde of the roaring Nineties.
Observer: She is an extremely confident writer, combining precise, sensuous descriptions with irony and wit. This is a lively, gutsy, highly readable debut.
Online reviews from Amazon.co.uk:
Mr W. Dover: A wonderful, fulfilling and uplifting story. Ultimately life-enhancing.
firstname.lastname@example.org: Moving, exciting, sad, funny and erotic, this is one of the best books that I've read for a long time.
A Customer: a first novel that you can hear, taste and smell.