The Paying Guests: Sarah Waters

★★½

I read this a while ago and, at the time, hadn’t read any of Sarah Waters’s books except The Night Watch and, according to LibraryThing, The Little Stranger, although embarrassingly I can’t remember a thing about that. The Paying Guests was yet another of those books stumbled over in my local Oxfam. Even it didn’t exert quite the power I’d been hoping for, it turned into an unexpectedly engaging thriller whose final pages kept me up past midnight in my impatience to find out what happened.

On a bright early summer afternoon, Frances Wray stands at the window of her family’s villa on Champion Hill near Camberwell in London, waiting for the Barbers to arrive. The Barbers are to be new lodgers at the villa: concrete, rather miserable proof of the financial embarrassments into which Frances and her mother have fallen. Things were different, once, when Frances’s father was still alive and when her brothers were at home, but that was years ago and now her father is dead and the boys carried off by the War, and Frances and her mother eke out a shabbily genteel existence in the echoing mausoleum of their half-empty villa. Thus, the Barbers, who will bring them some much-needed income, even if their very presence will prove shameful to her mother, who worries about what the neighbours will think. Frances, more practical, has grown used to closing off parts of her heart and accepts the need to give up part of her precious home to strangers.

But it’s one thing to accept lodgers in principle and quite another to live with strangers in practice. Frances finds that the Barbers aren’t remotely the quiet, retiring types she’d hoped. Alarmingly, they seem to take over the quiet villa with their exuberance and their elaborate, self-consciously bohemian decorations, and noisy visits from their relatives. After so long without men around, and used to being in charge of her own home, Frances finds it rather uncomfortable to have Mr Barber – Leonard – loitering around in the garden, smoking, and jollying her up with his overly familiar ways. And she feels uncomfortable around Mrs Barber – Lillian – too: dreamy, quiet Lillian, who gradually finds herself drawn to Frances as they edge around one another in the house. The strangeness becomes sweetness but, dogged by her suspicions of Leonard and by her own mother’s disapproving scrutiny, Frances knows that nothing can truly last.

To a certain extent, it seems, one knows what to expect with Waters’s novels, and I have to confess that the first half of the book left me fairly unmoved. It was a fairly predictable tale of vintage Sapphic infatuation and, although Waters writes well, I’ve read more gripping and forceful evocations of forbidden love. But, just as the story had lulled me into an false sense of security, the plot careened abruptly onto a new set of tracks and suddenly became much more interesting. Here it became a question of duty and morality, and it grew more engaging for me, as we watch the characters’ different reactions to their new situation.

As ever, Waters is very good at conjuring up the flavour of the period. This is a vision of the 1920s as the grey tail end of a better age, a time when the servants had gone but one could still remember what it was like to have servants; and likewise the money. Frances and her mother are caged by the constraints of being less than they once were and Frances herself is a sober, sensible narrator, somewhat austere. It makes for a tightly-woven novel with a good momentum, the pace building towards the end, but for me it doesn’t quite match the period glamour and the assertive narration in Tipping the Velvet, which I’ve read since.

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