The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

So, this is weird – I finished The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters last week and today, as I sat down to write a review, I realised that I have no recollection of how the story ended. This means one of two things – either I have some serious memory issues or the ending wasn’t a particularly good one. I’m going with the later.

It’s 1922, and in South London, in a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants, life is transformed for widowed Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances when they are forced to take in lodgers – to ‘make ends meet’.

Frances and her mother sat with books at the French windows, ready to eke out the last of the daylight – having got used, in the past few years, to making little economies like that.

The lodgers are Lilian and Leonard Barber, a brash young couple of the ‘clerk class’. Their arrival changes everything, upsetting the routines of the house and involving Frances and Mrs Wray in a devastating situation (to say more would be a spoiler).

But lurid touches were everywhere, she saw with dismay. It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick. The faded carpet in her mother’s old bedroom was lost beneath pseudo-Persian rugs.

The writing is solid. It’s not flashy or particularly poetic but Waters creates great tension in everyday scenes – a lot can be said for curtain-twitching and indiscrete comments at an afternoon tea.

I enjoyed the subtle (very subtle) but ever-present undercurrent of shame that runs through the story – from Frances’s secret meetings in London with her friend Christina to the fact that it’s necessary for Mrs Wray and Frances to take ‘paying guests’ –

She tried to arrange her features into a businesslike expression as she took the envelope from Mrs Barber’s hand, and she tucked it in her pocket in a negligent sort of way – as if anyone, she thought, could possibly be deceived into thinking that the money was a mere formality, and not the essence, the shabby heart and kernel, of the whole affair.

Shame is at the core of a major plot point (which I won’t give away) but it’s enough to say that it’s reasonable motivation for Frances’s actions and in turn, saves the story from becoming melodramatic.

They had no idea how decency, loyalty, courage, how it all shrivelled away when one was frightened.

This was my first book by Waters and the style reminded me a little of Kate Morton (without Morton’s predictable backwards-and-forwards-in-time plots). Although I enjoyed the story while I was reading (and would recommend it to particular people), it’s the kind of book I would only choose occasionally – fairly certain I have an historical-thriller threshold.

3/5 Engaging.

Frances is given a glass of Claret Cup to drink at a party.

As part of the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, I’m comparing the Belfast summer and Melburnian winter. The results for the day I finished this book (August 12): Belfast 9°-18° and Melbourne 10°-17°.

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13 responses

  1. Pingback: 20 Books of Summer (except that it’s winter) | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

    • That’s so odd because I literally had to get the book back from ‘the cloud’ and reread the ending.

      I’ve got some samples of her other books so will certainly read more.

    • Pretty sure I have it because it received so much hype the year it was published (although not in Australia) and appeared on dozens of ‘best of’ lists. It made the Best of the Best list that I collate at the end of the year and I’m always intrigued by books that make that list that I’ve never heard of!

  2. These days I read/listen to most books with a review in mind, though I might only review about a quarter of the books I get through, so I generally remember them for a little while anyway. Re this book: for a little while when I was a student I boarded with an old,old lady and her old daughter in an East Melbourne apartment (opposite the MCG as it happens) who had once been wealthy, the mother had grown up in a mansion in Carlton before WWI. A sad pair.

    • What a fabulous part of Melbourne to live in – I’m imagining some amazing Art Deco apartment. There are two mother/daughter pairs living near me and both seem like sad pairs as well – there’s something very particular about that relationship (and perhaps the same exists with fathers and sons that live together although you don’t see that so often). I suspect it has something to do with the parent having had something that their child is unlikely to ever have.

  3. *chuckle* I forgot I had bought this and borrowed the audiobook from the library but *yawn* I abandoned it at CD 6 of 17.
    I haven’t given up entirely on Sarah Waters, but I think her earlier novels were better than her later work.

  4. I loved The Paying Guests though the ending was a bit of an anti-climax. And while I can’t do the Irish- Australia weather comparison I did once spend the first two weeks of the UK summer at home in Glasgow where it rained pretty much every day. I then went to Australia for 4 weeks and although cold ( especially Phillip Island I recall!) the Australian winter was much better than a Glaswegian summer!!

    • I think this year’s comparison between Belfast and Melbourne has been slightly more in Belfast’s favour – they seemed to have some genuinely warm days! I think last year when I did the same thing, there were lots of days when Melbourne’s winter was warmer than Belfast’s summer.

  5. I’m a Waters’ tragic, so I loved this, as with all her books. But I reckon Little Stranger and The Night Watch are two of the best (The Night Watch is also a fantastic BBC teleseries).

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