The Paying Guests is a novel full of surprising twists and turns and nail-biting suspense. Revealing details of the story would ruin it for you so I won’t say much. What I can say is that it includes a steaming love story with a twist and a brutal murder against the backdrop of post-World War I London. The Paying Guests is a completely gripping book, the kind of novel you read while walking around and that keeps you awake into the night. Few contemporary authors can beat Sarah Waters in reconstructing the feel and atmosphere of a period in history. In The Paying Guests, she skilfully does it again.
Slowly, slowly (perhaps a bit too much so) Sarah Waters paints a detailed picture of Frances Wray’s’ existence as a post World War I spinster whose brothers have died in the war and whose recently deceased father has left Frances and her mother in dire financial straits. The previously well-to-do Wrays stoop to new lows by renting out rooms in their large house. The tenants, or, as the Wrays like to call them, ‘the paying guests’, are, humiliatingly, from a lower class, about to improve on their station in life as clerks in the City.
Waters describes a society in upheaval with scores of unemployed ex-service men, social class barriers crumbling and brewing feminism. Frances and her friends’ ‘modern’ thinking is at odds with the Victorian attitudes of her mother’s generation. Yet Frances obediently plays her role as the supportive daughter, faithfully assisting her grieving mother, but under the surface, frustrations are building up.
Waters’ writing flows beautifully. Her carefully observed characters come alive, often it what remains unsaid. The tense atmosphere and forced intimacy with the tenants, the sound of whispering behind thin walls, it feels like you can reach out and touch the places and things she describes, the sounds and smells always present.
Once it had faded, however, they sat without speaking, in a silence broken only by soft kitchen noises, the tick of the clock, the stir of the coals in the stove, the faintly musical drip of water in the scullery sink.
After meticulously setting the scene and societal context, the story picks up pace, sucking the reader into a maelstrom of events. The book becomes utterly unputdownable and remains so until the very last page. A thrilling read!
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters will be published by Virago Press on 28th August 2014, 563 pages