I feel very spoilt having two of my favourite authors publish new books this summer. First, ‘Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage‘ by Haruki Murakami and now ‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters. Set in London shortly after the First World War, unmarried Frances Wray and her widowed mother have fallen on hard times and are forced to rent out rooms at their home in Camberwell. Frances becomes increasingly close to their young and modern “paying guests”, Leonard and Lilian Barbour. However, her relationship with Lilian soon triggers an unexpected and violent chain of events.
Having written three novels set in the 19th century followed by two set in the late 1940s, Waters turns to a different era in her latest work. As ever, Waters creates a vivid portrayal of life in 1920s London but wears her extensive and detailed historical research lightly, focusing on the shifting social attitudes and class distinctions in Britain after the First World War. In particular, the domestic portrait of the Wray household is excellent. Although the period detail is exquisite, Waters is careful not to over-embellish the scenes. At the heart of all of her novels is a really intriguing story and ‘The Paying Guests’ is no exception.
At 564 pages in length, the novel is a slow-burner with characteristically detailed set pieces but it is the psychological ambiguity which keeps the story moving. In many ways, it is a book of two halves. Much like ‘Fingersmith’, which is Waters’ strongest novel in my view, the blossoming romance between the main characters is followed by the investigation of a serious crime which takes up much of the second half of the novel. There is a clear shift in tone between the two halves of the book but both are equally compelling and the change between the different parts isn’t jarring to read.
The moral dilemma facing Frances and Lilian is handled brilliantly and Waters effortlessly ratchets up the suspense during the criminal trial scenes. I had originally been expecting a very different ending to the story but on reflection, it seems fitting that the story isn’t fully resolved. In some ways, it reminded me of the inconclusive “ending” of ‘The Night Watch’ although the structure of ‘The Paying Guests’ is much more linear than that of her fourth novel.
‘The Paying Guests’ is an accomplished and sophisticated novel by one of Britain’s best authors and fans of Sarah Waters will not be disappointed. Highly recommended.