So, I should say at the outset that The Paying Guests is most definitely not a book for children or young readers. I know I normally focus on kidlit around here, but I have to make exceptions for geniuses like Sarah Waters.
I’ve read (and absorbed) every word of every one of Sarah Waters’ books – I think she’s one of the finest writers in the English language. The Paying Guests is another book which, in her hands, seems so effortless – but you know that’s exactly why it’s so good. She makes it look and seem effortless, when in fact it’s a complex, layered, psychological thriller and crime procedural (not to mention a love story), so skilfully written as to leave you unable to put it down.
Briefly put: it’s London, in 1922. Post-war society is reeling, and struggling to find a new balance. Women have been shifted into new roles; old Victoriana is dying on its feet. Men, those of whom survived the war, are trying to find their way in a world which increasingly seems to have no place for them. We are introduced to Frances Wray, who lives in a once-grand house with her widowed mother and the shades and memories of her two brothers, both of whom ‘gave their lives’, as Mrs Wray puts it, ‘in France.’ Because of some financial foolishness on the part of Mr Wray before his untimely demise, the Wray women now find themselves in reduced circumstances. Like many people at that time were forced to, they take in lodgers in order to meet their mounting bills. After a huge amount of physical work and mental toil on Frances’ part, most of the second floor of the house is converted into a self-contained apartment, complete with living and bed rooms, and a small, neat kitchen. Frances manages to keep her own small room, clutter-free, and it seems like a haven amid the chaos. Mrs Wray finds herself sleeping in what was once her dining room, with a clutter of unnecessary and unwanted furniture in her way, and nowhere to put it. She bears up with stoicism, but beneath her sangfroid it’s clear that she is heartbroken at what has become of her once happy, full and prosperous home.
Into this scenario step Mr and Mrs Barber – or, as Frances eventually begins to call them, Leonard and Lilian. Young, and vibrant, and not long married, they begin to change the atmosphere in the house. Through open doors, Frances peeps at a life she has never known and will never know; the depiction of discomfort as both Wrays and Barbers learn to live cheek-by-jowl is masterfully achieved. Frances begins to warm to Lilian, first as a friend and then, later, as something more – this is a Sarah Waters novel, after all.
They begin to make plans for a future together. It is impossible, yet there’s enough reality woven through it to make it seem almost doable. They dream about having their own apartment, getting jobs, scraping by and being happy – and then something happens which shatters their dreams utterly.
I loved the second half of the book, which is a story more about crime and police procedure than about passion. I loved it because I was never sure whose side I was on, and whether I even liked Frances, or Lilian. The ground kept shifting beneath me, and I adored the feeling of never knowing whether the wool was being pulled over my eyes, or one of the characters’. Frances is an amazing character, and I say that because I wasn’t sure – and I still don’t know – whether I thought she was a good person, or a ‘nice’ person, or a woman whom I’d be happy to know. She was compelling, and real, and believable, and I was invested in her story.
But I still don’t think I’d like to take a gin and tonic with her.
And then there’s Lilian – full of life and vim, with her knick-knacks and gewgaws, her brash manner, her low-class family, her handsome Irish cousins, her connections to the war of Independence in Ireland. I started out loving her; as the story went on, I began to wonder, more and more, what her game was. Mrs Wray is a character I adored, because in her I saw the embodiment of the age which was dying, the age where a mother can’t tell her grieving, heartbroken daughter how much she loves and needs her, when it’s clear from every line of her face that she’s yearning to. I loved the scene with her trying to make the best of her new ‘bedroom’, and her quiet resignation in the face of upheaval. I loved her attempts to make life stay the same by continuing to take tea with her friends and attempting to maintain her outward appearances, when it’s clear to everyone that nobody’s life will ever be the same again.
And then there’s Leonard Barber, who I started off despising with every fibre of my being, and who – by the end – I began to think might have been my favourite character all along.
I loved this book. I couldn’t stop reading it. I whinged and moaned when people wanted me to do stuff with them (like talking, and watching TV, and generally listening to their conversation), and all I wanted to do was get back to it. But then, I’m a huge fan of the author and I love all her books. If you’re not sure whether Sarah Waters is for you, my recommendation is to try Affinity, which is my favourite of her novels, and give it a go. If that book doesn’t leave you wanting more, I don’t know what will.
Happy weekend, everyone. Read on!