The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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Reviewed by Harriet Devine

Phew! Well, the term unputdownable is often bandied around – I’ve done some bandying myself – but there were times when Sarah Waters’ latest novel actually became unpickupable.  I got to a point in the central section where I simply couldn’t bear to go on, and only overcame it by rationing myself to daytime reading rather then my preferred bedtime. I hasten to say that of course this doesn’t mean The Paying Guests is a bad novel – on the contrary, it is superb. But there’s some strong stuff in there which makes it, to use another well-worn phrase, not for the fainthearted.

The novel begins in classic Waters style. It is a Sunday afternoon in 1922, and Frances Wray and her mother are awaiting the arrival of their new paying guests with great trepidation. Their over-large house has become an intolerable burden since the death of Frances’s father, the revelation of his bad debts, and the loss of two sons in the war. Servants have become unaffordable, and Frances spends most of her time cleaning, cooking and scrubbing floors, something she does with grim determination. So the advent of young Mr and Mrs Barber – Len and Lilian – will make a huge difference to the very shaky economy of the household:

It was two weeks’ rent. Fifty-eight shillings. Frances could already hear the rustle of the pound notes and the slide and chink of the coins. She tried to arrange her features into a businesslike expression as she took the envelope from Mrs Barber’s hand, and she tucked it in her pocket in a negligent sort of way – as if anyone, she thought, could be deceived into thinking the money was a mere formality, and not the shabby heart of the whole affair.

The shame and misery of these two women’s lives is conveyed with exquisite sensitivity, and the shudder they both experience at the thought of taking into their home two people whose origins are decidedly of a lower class (“the clerk class”) than their own is sadly understandable. But though it is difficult to get used to meeting the Barbers on the stairs, having them pass through the kitchen on their way to the outside privy, and listening to them as they, or Lilian, decorate their rooms, slowly Frances comes to see Lilian in a different light. The two become tentative friends, take walks in the park, visit Lilian’s family. At last they start to share confidences, and Frances tells Lilian about her love affair with Christina, and her inability to be brave enough to embark on the life together they had planned. Lilian’s initial shock gives way to curiosity, and soon the two are engaged in a passionate love affair.

There are two places where the novel suddenly shifts gear, and this is the first one, which is a slight shock as the tone shifts from the rather sad depiciton of Frances’s unfulfilled life to a very direct representation of  intense sex between two women. The second, which is a direct outcome of the first, is the bit where a strong stomach is required, but I’m not going to say anything about that for spoiler-avoidance purposes.

Sarah Waters is noted for her ability to recreate the past, as she did brilliantly with the Victorian period in her first three novels, and the mid-20th  century in her two most recent ones. This is her first venture into the 1920s and it seems to me faultless. The shabby gentility of the Wrays is wonderfully contrasted with the lively outwardness of Lilian and her family – her mother, in particular, is a wonderfully imagined character, whose unappealing exterior conceals a heart of gold. As for beautiful, mysterious Lilian, who loves gaudy nicknacks but dresses herself in beautiful homemade clothes, the fact that we never really get to know what she is thinking is clearly deliberate, and necessary for the ambiguity that runs right through to the final page of the novel.

But it is Frances herself who is central to this story – Frances who has a secret life even before the novel begins, though now it may just take the form of a cigarette at bedtime:

she rolled a neat little fag … she liked to smoke like this, naked in the cool sheets, with only the hot red tip of a cigarette to light her fingers in the dark.

Frances, who is viewed as ‘unnatural’ by anyone who knows the secret of her sexuality, who is fiercely feminist and deeply regretting her inability to have seized the chance of happiness with her first lover, is frightened and confused by the powerful feelings aroused in her by the events of the second half of the novel, angry with herself for her confusion, full of fear and dread, but true as she can be to her feelings for Lilian, though these are sorely tested. Though the events of the final section are exciting in themselves, the real fascination here is to watch the many fluctuations of Frances’s mind as she sits as a silent witness to them all.

There’s only so much one can say about The Paying Guests without venturing into areas that can really only be discussed with other people who’ve read it. All I can say now is that having waited impatiently for the novel to be published, I was certainly not disappointed. Very highly recommended.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests (Virago, London: 2014). 9780349004365, paperback, 565 pp..

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