People are usually a bit surprised when I tell them I’ve never tried Sarah Waters, understandable I suppose given my love of stories set in the past. I think I’ve always been deterred by the knowledge that a number of her novels have a fairly substantial supernatural element, a theme that doesn’t appeal to me at all. “The Paying Guests”, however, is rooted very firmly in the physical world with all its lies, disappointments and sordidness, and has a sense of unvarnished realism that I found very refreshing. It’s a love story, a crime thriller and a perceptive snapshot of a time when social expectations – particularly for women – were starting to change.
The year is 1922. Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances are the only surviving members of the Wray family, having lost both sons in the Great War and the father soon after. Their large London home is proving too expensive to run, and mother and daughter are forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet. Those lodgers are Lillian and Leonard Barber, a young married couple whose modern sensibilities at first seem out of kilter with the subdued, formal atmosphere of a house still in mourning. Gradually, however, the naturally rebellious Frances is drawn into their enticing world – and life in the house on Champion Hill will never be the same again.
I absolutely loved Frances as a central character. She was headstrong and opinionated, yet also had an obvious vulnerability that prevented her from slipping into the dull and patronising cliché of the “feisty” heroine. We learn that she has been involved with the Suffragette movement and taken part in anti-authority activities to the consternation of her parents, and her mother still admonishes her for wanting to talk politics over the tea table; yet I didn’t see this as the familiar story of a woman ahead of her time trying to break through society’s conventions. In those kind of novels, the lead female character is often the only woman portrayed as being forward-thinking in any way and is surrounded by others whose desire to stick with convention is as strong as the heroine’s desire to break from it. “The Paying Guests” is not a book about one renegade woman: it is a novel of women, normal women who are simply in search of a life that will make them happy. If some of society’s mores are overturned in the process then it’s a by-product of an individual’s pursuit of personal fulfilment. It is without doubt the female characters who take centre stage and determine the novel’s course of events. The only male character we get to know in any detail is Leonard, whose enigmatic and unsettling demeanour becomes more and more troubling to Frances. This weighting towards the feminine is an interesting reflection of the state of Britain at that time, where thousands upon thousands of men have been killed in a war still fresh in everyone’s memory. Frances has lost all the male members of her immediate family, and throughout the novel peripheral characters make reference to male friends or relatives who lost their lives in the conflict. As events take a more sinister turn, those involved remark on how the war not only took so many innocent lives but hardened and corrupted the outlook of many of those men who survived, this collective shift towards self-serving cynicism being to the detriment of society and community. Little wonder then that women, their desires and ambitions are suddenly coming to the fore.
I can’t bring this review to a close without mentioning just how exciting this novel is in terms of its plot and action. Almost from the first page there is a tingling sense that something untoward is going to happen, and happen it does. The first major event is pretty easy to anticipate; after that, however, I was taken completely by surprise and consumed the last half of the book with a real stomach-knotting desperation to see how the story would conclude. I’ve read a lot of novels recently that I’ve enjoyed for their linguistic prowess, perceptive character studies or emotional impact, but it’s been a while since I read anything that has that real “what’s going to happen next” verve about it. I’m really pleased I’ve finally discovered what a brilliant writer Sarah Waters is and can guarantee I’ll be returning to her before too long.