As if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets …

Reading time: Less than 1 minutes

I like to share interesting pieces of figurative language I encounter in my reading. I write today about a series of metaphors and personification from novelist Sarah Waters.

I’ve now read three Sarah Waters novels. The Paying Guests was not my favourite — not by a longshot. (Fingersmith earned that distinction.) But usually a “mediocre” novel by a skillful writer is worth reading, as was this one.

Waters’ particular strength is her facility with figurative language. I take notes when I read and here are some of the best examples I culled from The Paying Guests, a crime story set in the London of 1922.

  • Here mother’s bits of bedroom furniture seemed to her to be sitting as tensely as unhappy visitors: she could feel them pining for their grooves and smooches in the floor of the room above.
  • It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick.
  • There were no smart shops once she had crossed Oxford Circus. London made one of its costume changes, like whipping off a cloak; it became a shabby buddle of pianola sellers, Italian grocers, boarding houses, pubs.
  • Their friendship sometimes struck Frances as being like a piece of soap — like a piece of ancient kitchen soap that had got worn to the shape of her hand, but which had been dropped to the floor so many times it was never quite free of its bits of cinder.
  • When she thought of him she saw him not as the nineteen-year-old he had been when he was killed, but as a boy in a striped pyjama suit, his pink feet smooth and rounded as pebbles.
  • The rolls were good, the radishes were crisp, the eggs gave up their shells as if shrugging off cumbersome coats.
  • It was like a cure, being with Lilia. It made one feel like a piece of wax being cradled in a soft, warm palm.
  • But finally the crackles and the hisses [of the phone] resolved themselves into a voice— and then, yes, it was thrilling and uncanny to recognize a bit of Shakespeare and know that the words were coming across miles of empty space, directly into one’s ear, like a whisper from God.
  • Her resolutions were peeling from her like bark from a tree.
  • Soon the sounds began to feel to Frances like pressure on a bruise.
  • Outside the mist thickened until it might have been pressing at the house.
  • On the slow walk to the grave, the mourners, like vinegar and oil, somehow divided themselves into two distinct streams.
  • Beneath the padding in the shoulders of his jacket she could make out the lines of his shoulder-blades, sharp as two narrow plates of metal.

So much sharply observed figurative language here. My favourite? “It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick.” I like the way the image is both completely evocative and utterly disgusting.

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