Eagerly awaited, Sarah Waters’ latest novel The Paying Guests does not disappoint. Fans of Waters have come to expect her tight and ingenious plotting, meticulous period scene setting and vividly distinctive use of language: who but she would describe the sound of a dripping tap as making, ‘the occasional echoey plink of drips,’ or the eyes of a court clerk who has removed his spectacles as ‘unshelled molluscs.’ There is a pared-down precision in her employment of words that can surprise but which never distract from the story itself. Strength of narrative thread and unexpected turns of events are characteristics of Waters’ work and in The Paying Guests both these elements are evident in abundance. We are drawn initially into a love story, which transforms into a crime plot, merging two distinct genres, playing with the tropes of both, and yet allowing each to expand upon and intensify the other.
Set in the 1920s, the novel opens in a post war world of impoverished, suburban gentility. Frances Wray and her mother live alone, Frances skivvying to keep up appearances, as they can no longer afford a servant, until they open their doors to the Barbers, Lil and Len, who rent the rooms left empty by the two sons that died in the war. Indeed it is not only the physical spaces that have been left empty, but also the two women’s lives, which have been doomed to an endless and purposeless limbo. We discover the opportunities for freedom that the war offered to women were short lived in Frances’s case, as she had been shamed into abandoning a love affair with a woman to return home and care for her mother.
Lil and Len burst into their lives bringing with them an alarming otherness that threatens to disrupt the Wray’s fragile propriety, upsetting the rigid class structure that meant such people used not to make close acquaintance. The Barber’s flirtatious sense of fun, cigarettes, music and late-night drinking prove too much of a temptation for poor, dull Frances to resist, setting in motion a series of events that will devastate all their lives.
This is that rare beast, a thought-provoking, literary novel that seduces the reader, drawing them along in its slipstream with extraordinary ease, the kind of novel that demands to be finished, yet leaves in its wake a whole set of ideas to be returned to and re-examined.
THE PAYING GUESTS is published by Virago
Elizabeth Fremantle is the author of Queen’s Gambit, a novel about Katherine Parr, and Sisters of Treason, which tells the story of Lady Jane Grey’s tragic younger sisters. Watch the Lady, exploring the life of Penelope Devereux, sister of the doomed Earl of Essex and muse to Sir Philip Sidney, will be published in June 2015.