Van has finished reading…The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

6 Sep

1922, and London struggles to shrug off the ever-present effects of the great war. Times are hard, the streets throng with ex-servicemen, their hunger for opportunity coalescing to stark disillusionment. Widowed Mrs Wray and her daughter, Frances are forced to take in paying guests to make ends meet.

Enter Mr and Mrs Barber. On the up from ‘the clerk class’, Leonard and Lilian move in and for Frances life will never be the same.

Being a Sarah Waters novel, you can guess to some extent where The Paying Guests is heading, although, being a Sarah Waters novel, won’t see it all, and even as the path ahead clarifies you won’t care because by that time it’s how each revelation will rake her characters’ souls that you really want to see. The build-up to these telling moments is superb, over and over again done in such a way that you find yourself at first examining the options, and then as the possibilities diminish becoming more attuned to the effect whichever outcome is likely to have, and then finally, once the screen draws back and the path is known, finding the delight that is a good page-and-a-half more of actually seeing what that effect is. It’s the tree root the dangles beneath the cliff we’ve already hung from, ratcheting everything up a notch further when you thought there weren’t any notches left. The other thing that’s brilliant about it is that it’s exactly this that makes the book about the people who populate it more than the events. It’s quite brilliant.

As you’d expect from Sarah Waters, it’s her women who really shine. They’re each drawn vividly and distinctly, each hemmed by their station in life, and their interactions are sublime. Mrs Viney’s playing-up to her hoity-toity expectation of Mrs Wray’s sensibilities, and her subsequent slipping back into her more comfortable Walworth Road patter as familiarity spreads, is just brilliant. The comedy of it underpins perfectly Mrs Wray’s fear of what they’ve had to stoop to in taking lodgers in. The distance between Frances and her mother is perfectly weighted too. The sense of her being nothing better than an unpaid scullery maid against the simple fact that the chores must be done. It’s all a microcosm of between-the-wars London on the cusp of an emerging new social order.

Then there’s the burgeoning affair. It’s the focus on the emotional rather than the physical that really lights a fire here. I think anyone’s who’s ever been moved by desire will relate to the author’s rendering of Frances and Lilian’s first kiss. It’s like those coalescing paths all over again: the possibility of it, the probability, the act itself and then the plunging, fearful, joyous emotional storm of it that we endure as Frances does. It fair makes the hairs at the back of the neck rise.

It’s a big book, something of a slow-burn, I thought, to begin with though you have the author’s lovely prose to spirit you into the heart of the story and its cast. It is, as you’d expect, most definitely a book to get lost in. Set some hours aside to immerse yourself and I’ll warrant there’ll be a teary eye or two come the curtain.

 

The Paying Guests was published by Virago on 26 August 2014 ISBN: 9780349004365

You can find Sarah Waters at her website, sarahwaters.com

 

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