Sarah Waters is a brilliant story teller. We’re in Camberwell in 1922 for her latest novel The Paying Guests. Our protagonist is Frances Wray, a spinster in her mid-twenties who lives with her mother in their large house. They have divided it up to rent out some of the rooms to a young married couple, Mr and Mrs Barber, to help pay for the running of the property. So far, so straightforward.
But Frances falls in love with the wife – the quirky Lilian Barber who fills her new rooms with ‘pseudo-Persian rugs’ and other ‘lurid’ things. Waters charges lines in the opening chapters with sexual tension: ‘Lilian’s excitement was exciting her now. There was something seductive about the idea of putting herself into Lilian’s hands’.
Readers will savour the pace that Sarah Waters masterfully sets for the plot to progress. It swings smoothly from ‘gales of laughter’ to a particularly touching moment when Frances considers the lives that could have been of her late brothers who were killed in the war as young men.
Frances and Lilian embark on a love affair. Their furtive creeping around unexpectedly accelerates to criminal activity. They find themselves, no, place themselves in the midst of a murder trial, at a time when capital punishment governs. The story turns and ethics are questioned. If you were to glance at your own moral compass from hereon in, you might feel a bit lost. Indeed, it seems that characters are also caught between motions; they notably spend a lot of time in liminal spaces. Frances lingers on the landing, family discuss things in the hall, in doorways and on bridges.
Frances is often an unreliable protagonist. She frames characters’ feelings as she describes her paying guests as having ‘apparent earnestness’; she looks for meanings in conversations only to decide that ‘there was nothing behind the comment’. We can track her character development on a linguistic level. Initially she feels alert and self-conscious, even ‘over-conscious’ to gradually losing any kind of certainty about what is going on around her (I worry I would give too much away if I were to explain precisely why this is: suffice to say the lexical choices mirror the plot superbly.) She continues to feel emotions with sharp intelligence and grows increasingly reliant on her ‘oil-skin layer’ to protect her. She’s alarmingly resilient, to the point of being ‘bored by fear’.
At times the grammar and energy of the writing emulate the ‘mad’ women of the Fin de Siècle novels: Frances’s exclamatory half-finished thoughts ‘But if it was – oh, if it was –!’ could be those of the Governess losing her grip in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.
One can appreciate the research that Sarah Waters must have undertaken to convincingly convey post-war London. The emphasis on the difference in class for example; Frances enjoys ‘that crucial touch of superiority’ over the clerk class Mr and Mrs Barber. Clothes are paid close attention: the ‘serge frocks, long skirts, stiff collars, neck-ties’ cleverly sit among fabric-based metaphors and imagery throughout the novel. The ‘clinging fibres’ of the past; the keys to the house for Mr and Mrs Barber are presented on ribbons. Frances’s love for Lilian is called ‘a single pale thread in a dark, dark tangle’. But later in the story we are told that ‘there’s more to life than silk ribbons’.
I particularly enjoyed the representation of journalism of the era (and the reference to Guildford in Surrey!) Sympathetically timed to coincide with the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, it’s an exquisitely clever story – one that will grip you to the core.
‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters is released on 28th August, published by Virago, £20.
My copy of ‘The Paying Guests’ was kindly sent (on my request) to me to review.