I should say, right from the outset, that in the past I have not been a Sarah Waters fan. To be honest, her first three books bored me; I actually gave up on Fingersmith half way through because I couldn’t bear to wade my way through the same events for a second time, even though they were going to be seen from a different perspective – one of my favourite narrative devices. I preface this review in this manner as a warning to all devoted Waters fans, so that when I say that I really enjoyed her latest novel, The Paying Guests, they might be alerted to the fact that this isn’t, in my view at least, typical of her work. I would call it Sarah Waters Lite.
Of course, you would be perfectly justified in asking why I persist in attempting to read Waters’ novels when I have such difficulty with them. Well, she is one of those authors about whom I have the sneaking feeling that the fault must lie in me rather than in her writing. Couple that with the fact that this time round I was offered a free preview copy and you have the answer to my continued perseverance. Remember what you were always told at school. Eventually, perseverance pays off.
The Paying Guests is set four years after the First World War, a time when the reality of that conflict’s aftermath is becoming more and more apparent. Frances Wray and her mother are desperately trying to maintain their London home after the deaths of both the sons of the family and of the financially inept Mr Wray. The house is crumbling around them and its daily maintenance is far more than Frances can manage herself. The only answer is to take in paying guests – lodgers to you and me. Enter Lilian and Leonard Barber, representatives of the clerking class, a rising breed as alien to Mrs Wray and Frances as any exotic bird might have been.
With no intention but to be model tenants, the Barbers manage to completely disrupt the household. Mrs Wray is disturbed simply by their presence, the more so when Lilian’s exuberant, but wonderful, family come to visit. Frances, on the other hand, is disturbed in more visceral ways. She has had to give up a previous affair in order to maintain relationships with her family, now she finds herself living in the same house as a woman who moves her to passionate love.
As we gradually discover, the Barbers’ marriage is deeply flawed and Lilian responds to Frances’ overtures. Inevitably, when Leonard discovers this, tempers fly and an act is committed from which there can be no going back. The rest of the novel is then concerned with how the two women deal with the consequences of what has happened and what it does not only to their relationship but also to each of them as individuals as they are forced to face what they discover about themselves in the light of their subsequent behaviour. As Frances eventually recognises decency, loyalty, courage…all shrivel away when one [is] frightened.
So, why did I enjoy this book that much more than Waters’ other work? Perhaps it attracted me more than the first three at least because it was about a time I felt I could more easily relate to. No, I’m not Methuselah, I wasn’t around just after the First World War, but both my parents were and I have their recollections of what life was like trying to rebuild in a world that had changed forever both in respect of the material and the societal. My maternal grandmother, like Mrs Wray, had lost all the men in her family and she was left to cope with three daughters only the eldest of whom was old enough to really be of any assistance. Mind you, Mary Ellen, was made of very different stuff to Mrs Wray and would have demolished Frances’ mother with one lash of her extremely harsh tongue. Nevertheless, the situation in which the Wrays find themselves is one that I can understand and also is extremely well drawn by Waters. Her depiction of both the material deprivations of the post war years and the physical and emotional exhaustion against which everyone was still doing battle is excellent. While there were times when I wanted to shake Mrs Wray for her complete inability to face the reality of what the world, her world, had become, I could still understand her confusion as everything she had been brought up to believe was inviolate simply crumbled around her.
Waters is also excellent in her portrayal of the various stages through which Frances and Lilian’s relationship goes as their individual situations become more and more precarious. As Frances herself recognises, the two women really know very little about each other and this, coupled with the corroding fear of what might happen to them if the truth should come out, drives a wedge between them which may or may not remain forever as a barrier to a closer relationship.
If the book has a weakness then for me it is in the way in which it deals with the moral dilemma the women face when it appears that someone else may be blamed for the action they have perpetrated and the aftermath of that false accusation. I can understand why they behave as they do and I think the manner in which they try to push the possible outcome from their minds is completely believable, but at the book’s conclusion the fact that they have got away with it is fore-staged over the question of what the knowledge of their escape is going to do to them in later life. Perhaps that has to be a whole other book, but I was left feeling that, whatever their motivation, wrong had won and that subsequent retribution needed to part of the story as well.