New York 2014
As I write this it dawns on me that I’ve never before reviewed a book that was currently in the bestsellers lists. This is a little ironic given that Sarah Waters has never set a book in today’s society. Past works have been set in Victorian times (Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith), in the 1940s (The Night Watch and The Little Stranger) and now, this one, The Paying Guests, set in 1922.
I have no great feelings, one way or the other, about historical fiction. I’ve encountered some egregiously bad examples and some splendid achievements. In the latter category, I’d put Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books. I do think, though, that it’s a very difficult genre to carry off well and Sarah Waters does a great job here.
The story is set in London in 1922. WWI has ended and London (where the story is set) is a place badly bruised from all that it has suffered. The old order will never be the same and privilege is giving way to a new middle-class and the emergence of a more independent and prouder working-class. Imagism and, more precisely, Modernism is at the heart of a new bohemian aesthetic and, though women have yet to get full voting rights, an independent and suffragist spirit is gaining strength.*
Frances Wray and her mother live in a barely kept-up large house in a ‘respectable’ part of London. Frances’s father died some years before after squandering the family’s assets and both of her brothers were killed in the war. To make ends meet she and her mother decide to take in lodgers — the paying guests of the title — a young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber. Leonard is a clerk at an insurance company; Lilian stays at home, bored and passing the time making their apartment more ‘artistic’. Initial shyness and the new oddity of the living arrangements for both parties, gives way to a friendship and then to a romance. Those who are familiar with Sarah Waters’ work will not be surprised to learn that the romance is between Frances and Lilian. And then things take a turn — a very bad turn — for the worse.
It was just before this turn that I nearly stopped reading. While the romance was passionate and engaging, I grew a bit tired of it. I was getting a feeling of being in some ‘chick lit’ novel. I actually dislike that term and have seen it applied unfairly to several writers that I admire. But the fact is that about a third of the way through a rather long book I was beginning to lose interest. But after putting the book aside for a day, I found myself thinking about it and finding the characters coming to life in my imagination. And this, I think, is Sarah Waters’ great strength as a writer. Her characters are at once recognizable and thoroughly original. Clearly and quickly limned, they nonetheless have nothing of the caricature about them. And the main characters are very deeply human, given to extraordinary strengths and shabby weaknesses.
I’m trying hard to avoid any spoilers here but I will say that there were times when I had to stop reading because the tension was starting to un-nerve me. An earlier Sarah Waters book, The Little Stranger, had a similar effect on me. It’s easily one of the most unsettling, creepy books I’ve ever read. The Paying Guests, in its own way is equally dread-filled but it does resolve and makes, in the end, for a very satisfying and worthwhile read.
* For more on the zeitgeist of the times, I’d recommend the book reviewed last month: The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Ulysses was published in 1922, the same year in which the action in The Paying Guests is set.