A new Sarah Waters novel is always a cause for celebration. I’ve read three of her previous novels and loved the experience of each with “Fingersmith” topping the pile. But I think “The Paying Guests” may be my new favourite. Waters has that special ability as a writer of gripping you from the start. Even though there isn’t much action at the beginning of this new novel, I was totally entranced by the vividly-described characters and their suffocating sense of claustrophobia as they awkwardly learn to live together. And you know that with this author’s talented ability for writing a long sumptuously twisted plot that the action will come soon enough and boy when it starts it is totally gripping! It’s 1922. At a large well-to-do house in south-east London, spinster-ish Frances Wray and her aging mother anxiously await the arrival of their paying guests, The Barbers. Frances has redecorated some upstairs rooms to rent out to lodgers because they are a respectable family who have fallen on hard times. She lives alone with her mother since her father died of heart trouble and her two brothers died in the war. The too-large house has fallen into disrepair. As Frances’ mother admits: “It’s heart stopped… years ago.” They can’t afford servants. They can barely afford to keep the heat going to stay warm. They need an income of rent money. However, being a respectable family the neighbours refer to the Wray’s new lodgers as their paying guests.
Even though she’s only in her 20s Frances feels like she’s already past her prime spending her days making murky cups of cocoa for her mother and scrubbing the floors of the house. Her thoughts about her position in life are that she should “Be content with your 'role', that you are settling so nicely into, like an oyster digging its dumb way into the sea-bed.” In the past she’s not been so satisfied with such a modest role in life. Years ago she had an affair with a woman which was found out by her family and put to a stop. When Frances unexpectedly finds love again, the affair threatens to completely unhinge her life and the story takes a series of gripping unexpected turns.
What Waters is supremely accomplished at doing in her writing is detailing the psychological intricacies of romance, the ebb and flow of lust and the overriding indecisiveness of love. The awakening of passion, the heat of the moment and the stupefaction at when it goes are all described in utterly convincing scenes. It leads Frances to wonder at one point “if their passion had ever been real.” Although we like to believe that once we’ve found the love of our lives our feelings will remain constant but they always fluctuate. We can be clingy and possessive about a person one minute, then revolted and spiky towards them the next. In “The Paying Guests” Frances and her lover’s relationship undergoes unusually extreme tests as the plot develops and their circumstances drive them physically and emotionally apart.
Lingering behind so many intense affairs in Waters’ novels is the suspicion that the other person may not genuinely love them back. This is true in any relationship, but particularly so in the times in which Waters writes about homosexual love. The fear of betrayal that could lead to exposure and shame exerts terrifying pressure on the binding which holds these unique relationships together. Frances is a woman unusual in her time in that she is confident about her sexual desires for women. She ardently wishes to settle down in an apartment of her own with the woman she loves. Ironically, Mrs Wray says to Frances at one point, “all I’ve ever wanted for you were such ordinary things: a husband, a home, a family of your own. Such ordinary, ordinary things.” These are the ordinary things that Frances so desperately wants as well with the small substitution of having a wife rather than a husband. Herein lies the real tragedy.
There are a great many things I’d like to discuss about this novel, but can’t because it would give too much about the plot away. But rest assured you’ll find the thrill of passion, criminal intrigue, drunken parties, nosey neighbours, snooping detectives and a heated courtroom battle – all played out against the magnificently rendered backdrop of post-WWI London. Waters is that rare kind of literary writer who creates thrillingly-told historical novels. “The Paying Guests” demonstrates how this writer is at the height of her powers. It’s a novel with real heart.