The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters has been getting a lot of attention in the literary world. Apparently Sarah Waters has been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize three times, but I have yet to read any of her historical fiction. This one, set in post-war (1922) London, sounded too intriguing to pass up, so I’m starting with it.
Enter Lillian and Leonard Barber. Although of a decidedly lower class, they are trying to make something of themselves. Leonard is a hardworking and successful clerk in "assurances." Lillian has managed to shake off the accent and manners of her shopkeeper family, though Frances still finds her tastes (in furnishing and clothes) somewhat garish. But Lillian is sweet and earnest. Leonard is something of a boor. But the money. . .Frances tries to focus on the money.
Waters draws the reader in with an exquisitely detailed if somewhat claustrophobic picture of a lonely woman with a tragic past who now has the tiny bubble of her life invaded by absolute strangers. She would like to pretend these people are not in her house, but there is an inevitable intimacy to the overheard conversations and the passings on the stairs.
While Frances’s mother (a frail-ish woman who, quite naturally, is still grieving her sons and husband) seems pleased to have a man about the house again, Frances is irked by Leonard and is drawn to Lillian. A friendship blossoms between them. And then, a love affair.
This is not going to go well.
Sarah Waters is an extraordinary writer who is able to place a reader fully in a scene even when most of the action is taking place inside a character’s head. Frances may be doing nothing more than housecleaning, but the descriptions are so fully wrought, and we are so completely aware of Frances’s mood and train of thought, that we could be there with her. It is not a fast-paced read, but it is steady, and it builds as the consequences of the women’s love affair fly out of control and they begin to question themselves and their commitment to one another.
These characters are put through the wringer. They are not particularly admirable but they are entirely realistic, flawed, and sympathetic.
The Paying Guests is well deserving of the accolades it is receiving.