Friday, December 05, 2014

'The Paying Guests' by Sarah Waters

5 December 2014

A new novel by Sarah Waters is always a treat to look forward to. I've just finished reading 'The Paying Guests' (as an unabridged audio book, narrated by Juliet Stevenson). Like its predecessors, 'The Night Watch' (reviewed here in January 2008) and 'The Little Stranger' (reviewed here in June 2010), this is a long (576 pages), historical novel set in the first half of the twentieth century. 'The Paying Guests' begins in 1922 in a London still feeling the effects of the First World War. Frances Wray lost both her brothers in the war and, following the death of her father, she and her mother, having dispensed with their servants, can only afford to stay in the family home by taking in lodgers. The story is told in the third person but through the eyes of Frances. Waters is a brilliant writer and she conjures up the world of 1922 in minute detail so that you feel exactly what it would have been like to have been there. Her writing never betrays any knowing historical hindsight and feels extensively researched and completely true to the period. You could believe it was a contemporary novel of the time, if it were not for a level of sexually explicit content that would not have been acceptable in a literary novel in 1922. The tension between the middle-class Wrays and their lower-class lodgers, the Barbers, is subtly drawn but palpable. This is a world in which social standing is indicated by the wearing of hats. The first half of the novel is slow, careful and very bleak, portraying the humdrum existence of everyday life. The second half feels like a different book – a tense, dramatic thriller that grips the reader, giving little away about where the plot may take us. But the melodramatic latter section is all the more effective for building on the painstaking detail of the early chapters and showing us that, amid the intricate descriptions of the characters' daily lives there were tiny clues whose importance is only revealed much later as the plot takes hold and violently shakes these lives until everything falls out. 'The Paying Guests' is a fairly grim tale, with little humour to light the bleakness of post-war London, but it's beautifully written, expertly crafted and builds to a thrilling finale.



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