Whenever I open up a book by a favourite author, my anticipation is edged with anxiety that perhaps -alas- this might be the book that does the literary equivalent of jumping the shark. I’ve loved every one of Sarah Water’s books and her last, The Little Stranger marked such a departure from her earlier work that I wondered if I’d seen the last of the Sarah Waters I’ve enjoyed so much. I need not have feared. She’s back to her plots that involve lesbian relationships, and as with all her earlier books, she combines careful but lightly- worn research with intricate plotting and multi-layered characters. I shut the book with a very satisfied sigh and no, she hasn’t lost it one little bit.
The Paying Guests is set in post WWI London, in a society still raw with grief at so much loss of young life. Frances Wray has returned to her widowed mother’s empty house, her two brothers having died at the Front, and in their straitened circumstances, mother and daughter shift into a couple of rooms on the ground floor and let the upper rooms of the house. The rooms are taken by Mr and Mrs Barber, who after initial awkwardness they come to call ‘Leonard’ and ‘Lilian’. The domestic details are captured so well: the embarrassment as Leonard clatters through the kitchen to the toilet outside, the unaccustomed creaks and thumps as the Barbers move around in their upstairs room and just the change in the air of the house as new people move into it. This is a Sarah Waters book, you’ll remember, so it’s no surprise that Frances and Lilian become close – very close. It happens slowly, with every movement suffused with the significance of new and uncertain love, and it takes almost 200 pages. I felt apprehensive: this isn’t going to end well… (and besides, there’s another 250 pages to go)
Abruptly the novel changes pace as two crimes take place. It’s probably a bit of a stretch to compare this book with Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment but as a reader, I found myself feeling the same cover-your-eyes, sick-at-the-pit-of-my-stomach emotions. By turns nightmarish, then banal, this tension is sustained over two hundred pages as Frances begin to doubt Lilian and the details of the crime itself. Lilian is always a bit of a mystery, but Frances is a nuanced, grounded, character and completely believable.
Waters captures so much here: the tenderness and tentativeness of new love, the gradations and details of class difference, the leached-out greyness of 1920s London as if worn down by grief for sons, brothers and lovers who did not return and the betrayals felt by those who did.
I need not have feared. This book is vintage Sarah Waters, and she’s just as good here as in her earlier books.