It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.
For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.
This is vintage Sarah Waters: beautifully described with excruciating tension, real tenderness, believable characters, and surprises. It is above all a wonderful, compelling story. – from Goodreads
My Rating: ★★★★★
My Thoughts (may contain very minor spoilers):
Every so often a book will grab you right from the very first page and refuse to let go until you’ve seen it through to the conclusion. That was the case for me with The Paying Guests.
From the very first moment I was transported into Sarah Waters’ 1920s post-war London on a Sunday evening, pacing the room, awaiting the arrival of the Barbers, or ‘waiting to begin a journey’ as Frances thinks very early on. I’m not going to write any major spoilers in this review, but will probably end up talking about some of the scenes which really came to life for me, so thought I‘d better just mention that before I begin…
The book is in three parts, and the first establishes and builds up the relationship between Frances and her new houseguests in a series of events and encounters.
The lovely, lyrical writing creates a picture of, if not happiness, then a certain level of comfortable routine – Frances and her mother share a house and a routine of everyday events, including visits to the cinema and the library together.
This offers a jarring contrast with their new circumstances as, compelled by reduced financial circumstances, they take in the ‘paying guests’ of the title.
The strangeness of sharing what was once their own home with these new people, and becoming accustomed to the resulting close proximity of the strangers, is wonderfully written, and a reasonable sized house suddenly seems somehow claustrophobic as the daily routine becomes intruded upon, and the new situation calls for new boundaries to be established.
Enhancing this turbulent atmosphere are glimpses of Mrs Barber, totally different from people Frances has previously known, with her brightly coloured clothes, her parasol and her vast collection of bits and pieces with which she decorates her rooms. There are also several encounters between Frances and Mr Barber which leave her feeling uneasy about his presence in the house.
The detail and depth in the writing fully immerses you into the London of Frances and Lilian, and scenes from the everyday, such as a walk through an area of London, solitary and perfect, are conjured up such a way as to make them memorable.
Now for the scenes which really stuck with me. No massive spoilers, but anyone wanting to go into this read totally blind may want to skip to the next paragraph.
Frances and Lilian’s visit to the park, and the unanticipated and unwelcome attention from an admirer is a great scene, and I found myself cheering Frances on as she saw the potential suitor off, disgruntled that their day should be disturbed by such a person.
The family party to which Lilian invites Frances to accompany her fairly thrums with life, and serves to build up the tension between the two of them.
Such everyday but remarkable scenes felt so lifelike I could almost have been there beside the characters, sharing London with them.
One of my favourites was the visit to the skating rink; so innocent on the surface, it provided Frances and Lilian freedom to be easy in each others company out in public and enjoy a moment of lightness together.
Another highlight was the most awkward variation of Snakes and Ladders ever. As Frances starts to treat her houseguests more as friends it’s clear there’s an undertone to the Barbers’ relationship, something not quite right. I loved the comical moment the morning after, with Frances waking up and recalling with horror singing aloud and ‘tittering and bellowing’.
The tension heightens and things take an unexpectedly dark turn as the stakes are raised in the tangled affair of Frances and the Barbers, and I was on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next, and how the situation could ever be resolved. The threads become tangled and innocent people are drawn into what could amount to a life or death situation, leaving you wondering just how much further the characters will go, and whether any of the new-found love will be salvageable after all that has happened. What began as a slow-burning love story becomes a crime and courtroom drama, and it’s gripping stuff.
I love Frances as a character – her inner strength and her annoyance when a man pays them unwanted attention in the park, the way she strives for the best in her potential new relationship, even though it started in unusual circumstances, and the picture she paints for their future together. She knows what she wants, and will go to certain lengths to achieve it, in pursuit of a married woman, but then after certain events she is horrified at the lengths other people go to and her changing, conflicting emotions make for a great read. She’s a very real character and it‘s difficult to anticipate what the outcome of all these events will be.
I devoured each and every page of this book, and often felt very torn between wanting to know how it was all going to play out, but not wanting to reach the end because then it would be over and I‘d have to leave this richly created world behind.
What a great read!