The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The British author, Sarah Waters, is no stranger to the Man Booker award. She was first shortlisted for the prize in 2002 for her spell-binding Dickensian masterpiece, Fingersmith. Then came The Night Watch in 2006, followed by the ghost story, The Little Stranger (2009). Both are set in 1940s England and were shortlisted for the Booker.

The amount of historical research done for her latest crime novel, The Paying Guests, is evident from start to finish. Set in 1922 London, it focuses on a mother, aged 55, and daughter, aged 26, reeling from financial and personal losses. Frances Wray has lost both of her brothers in WWI, as well as her father some time later. Now, with barely enough savings to keep their home, Frances and her mother decide to rent out the rooms upstairs.

"The Paying Guests," as the boarders are referred to, are from the lower middle classes - the new "clerk class." Leonard Barber works in an office; his wife, Lilian, lounges about the house in theatrical clothes. The unhappy details of their marriage gradually become known to the reader as Frances ease-drops on their conversations.

The most sympathetic character in the book is Frances. A former suffragette, she once had dreams of a bohemian life. She and her friend, Christine, hoped to make a life together and support themselves by working. This is a new life choice for post-Edwardian women. But loss of her father and brothers, coupled with her mother's sheer helplessness, make this dream impossible. Admirably, Frances never feels sorry for herself. She goes about her days immersing herself in the tasks at hand.

Waters' prose is lyrical as she uses the condition of the newly washed floor as a metaphor for life in general and Frances' life in particular.

How pleasing each glossy tile was. The gloss would fade in about five minutes as the surface dried; but everything faded. The vital thing was to make the most of the moments of brightness. There was no point in dwelling on the scuffs...She had--what did she have?--Little pleasures like this. Little successes in the kitchen. The cigarette at the end of the day. Cinema with her mother on a Wednesday. Regular trips into Town.  (p. 24)

One feels absolutely transported--lulled by the quiet observations of our protagonist. And just when the reader feels secure in the story being told--midway through this 550+ page book--everything changes. A completely new plot unfolds. Frances' attraction to Lillian builds very gradually, as does their mutual passion. And then something shocking happens--a point of no return for Frances and Lillian. Passion is followed by murder. Nail-biting suspense replaces the slow pace of what seemed to be a gentle, domestic drama.

Sarah Waters masterfully analyzes an ethical dilemma and "the corrosive psychology of guilt." To quote Elizabeth Lowry of The Wall Street Journal:

The pressure that remorse and moral responsibility bring to bear on their love affair is unpacked with exquisite pathos, so that whether their relationship will survive at all remains uncertain until the very
last paragraph. It is a finely tweaked conclusion to an unnerving novel in which, in the end, almost everyone pays.

The Wall Street Journal online, September 19, 2014

If you are a fan of period literature, fine prose, or erotic thrillers, The Paying Guests is not to be missed.

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