Sarah Waters’ sixth novel, and her third to take place in the twentieth century after Night Watch and The Little Stranger, is narrated by a young woman called Frances who lives with her mother, ‘widowed Mrs Wray’ in what we presume was once a rather nice house in Champion Hill, a suburb of south London, genteel folk who have fallen somewhat on hard times, to the extent that they have to take in lodgers, newly(ish)weds, Lilian and Leonard Barber.
From the get-go, we see Frances as a largely goodhearted woman in difficult circumstances, doing her best to keep the house ticking along in the manner her mother had become accustomed to, without any hired help, knowing, of course, that her mother can see the gradual changes (Frances cleaning the hall tiles appals her) and yet doing her best all the same because she understands what her mother has had to bear, losing her sons in the first world war and her husband responsible for their diabolical finances with his wrongheaded investments
Lilian and Leonard change the atmosphere of the house, Frances ‘as conscious of their foreign presence as she might have been of a speck in the corner of her eye’. In part it is their class (the pair of them are not quite as genteel as Frances and her mother), and in part it is their youthful exuberance (they have friends over, they go out dancing). Either way, life is quickly changed and – gradually (Sarah Waters is the master of the gradual) – Frances comes to realise she doesn’t really like Leonard (Lenny), even as she warms to Lil (Lilian).
Any regular-ish reader of Sarah Waters will not need much to know where a blossoming friendship between Frances and Lilian eventually leads – but what is surprising is that, in the face of something as plain as the nose on your face, Waters manages to conjure a compelling love story nevertheless, full of affecting narrative twists and heartfelt, original and sincere moments (such as when Lilian removes an imaginary stake from Frances’ heart). It’s not just a love story, though. Eventually, as you know it must, their affair is revealed and a calamity ensues – the last third of the novel details how Frances and Lilian cope with that calamity.
The Paying Guests is a truly immersive read. Certainly this reader read the entire novel from start to finish in just under a day and that was with attempting to savour the book and go off and do other things. Whilst the final third of proceedings doesn’t quite maintain the momentum of the novel’s opening (Frances becomes somewhat dour and a creeping sameness overtakes some of the ruminative passages), it remains a thoroughly satisfying, entertaining read. If Sarah Waters bids the twentieth century adieu (just as she bid the previous century adieu at the end of Fingersmith, the last in her previous trio of books), she’ll be going out on a high. (And if she were to write a contemporary novel next, a novel of iPhones and Instagram, all the better!).
Any Cop?: One of the literary highs of 2014.