Sarah Waters is one of those authors who’s been on my radar for years, but whose work I’ve never read. I knew The Paying Guests would be out in paperback this year, so it was the one book on my list I was determined to read. It did not disappoint.
The novel is set in the 1920s, and narrated from the viewpoint of Frances. The story opens with the arrival of the Barbers, who have taken lodgings with Frances and her mother. We learn the causes of the family’s economic distress, and see the house become a microcosm of the shifting class boundaries of the era, as the story progresses in a leisurely fashion. A murder rocks the fragile stability of the arrangement, and shifts the story into high speed, with tension mounting over the search for the murderer, and outcome of the trial.
The slow build was initially frustrating, but on reflection I was struck by how closely the feeling created in the reader echoed Frances’ own frustration at her situation. The change in pace then made the book impossible to put down – I needed to know how things would end. I enjoyed the way in which the issues of the time – the loss of life in the Great War, unemployment, shifting class boundaries, the choices open to women – were deftly woven into the story. It never felt like heavy-handed ‘I will now talk about these historical and political issues’, instead these points were addressed through the decisions made by characters, and the consequences of their decisions, both past and present. I can see how the ending could feel anticlimactic, but I liked the dull, realness of it, and the loose ends that suggested either a return to the stasis of the opening chapters, or the potential for a new beginning.
I’ve tried to review without spoiling the story, but I should mention for the benefit of anyone considering reading The Paying Guests that there are a few sexually explicit scenes, in the event that you prefer your fiction a little more PG. I felt that genre-wise the novel sits somewhere between historical fiction and crime, so has a broad appeal; while some may find the slow beginning off putting, I think those who put the time into this will feel well rewarded.