The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

London, 1922. The city is trying to rebuild itself after the war – not just in terms of the buildings but also its people: those who have been to war and returned injured and scarred – physically and mentally; those who made decisions that otherwise would have been considered rash; those who now find themselves in financial difficulties.

Frances Wray, 26, and her mother live in Champion Hill. Following the death of Frances’ father and her brother during the war, they fall into the latter of the categories listed above. In order to try and prevent them losing their family home, they decide to take some lodgers. As the novel begins, they are waiting for Mr and Mrs Barber to arrive. When they do, Frances helps with unloading the van:

Over his shoulder Frances caught a glimpse of what was inside it: a mess of bursting suitcases, a tangle of chair and table legs, bundle after bundle of bedding and rugs, a portable gramophone, a wicker birdcage, a bronze-effect ashtray on a marble stand…The thought that all these items were about to be brought into her home – and that this couple, who were not quite the couple she remembered, who were younger, and brasher, were going to bring them, and set them out, and make their own home, brashly, among them – the thought brought on a flutter of panic. What on earth had she done? She felt as though she was opening up the house to thieves and invaders.

The couple are part of the ‘clerk class’, he works for an insurance company, she, of course, stays at home and decorates their rooms with exotic ornaments and paraphernalia.

At first, Frances seems to see Mr Barber more often – when he is smoking in the back garden, or on his way to or from it. She fears he is teasing her when he speaks to her and quite often his words seem to contain an innuendo. For his part, he seems to have Frances pigeonholed as a stereotypical spinster.

Frances, however, we learn by increments, is a passionate woman – I use the word in both its senses. She was part of the suffrage movement, which was how she met her friend Christina, whom she visits regularly throughout the novel, and also how she came to be arrested. She’s also passionate about the upkeep of her and her mother’s house, which she has taken on since the servants had to be dismissed when they could no longer afford them. She has no qualms about cleaning, even though her mother despairs, and rejects her mother’s call to get Mr Barber when a mouse is found, catching and disposing of it herself.

Eventually, helped by a visit from Mrs Barber’s mother, sisters and nieces and nephews, Frances and Mrs Barber – Lillian – begin a friendship. It is a friendship that will transform both of them in unexpected ways.

‘…”Forgive me, Mrs Barber. I don’t mean to be mysterious. I don’t mean to be maudlin, either. All I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that this life, the life I have now, it isn’t – “ It isn’t the life I was meant to have. It isn’t the life I want! “It isn’t the life I thought I would have,’ she finished.

The Paying Guests considers ideas of class, money, passion, marriage, the aftermath of war, morality and justice. Many of these themes are, of course, significant today and Waters’ treatment of morality and justice, in particular, is challenging and thought-provoking.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, I suspect partly because I knew so little about it and I’ve tried to avoid saying too much about the plot here for that reason. It also contains some of Waters’ trademark twists – and they’re delicious!

Waters’ writing is clear and concise. Her style is fluent and so easy to read; I think sometimes the work that goes into creating something so consistently readable is underestimated. Here the writing allows you to become absorbed in Frances’ world, in London in 1922 and not once are you jolted out of it.

The Paying Guests is vintage Waters and spending a few hours in her carefully crafted world will not disappoint.

Fellow Bailey’s Prize shadow jurors Eric and Helen have also reviewed this. Click on their names for their thoughts.

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

18 thoughts on “The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

  1. Well naturally this is right up my street, I’m sure I’d really like it but I am absolutely not buying any more books for a couple of months at least as things have gone rather ridiculous in book acquiring terms.


  2. I’m with Ali on this one; the period, premise and characters all sound great and I know I’ll enjoy it, but I’m going to wait for the paperback…that’s the plan, unless someone in my book group selects it as their pick (which is a distinct possibility!).


  3. I’m just about to write my review of this and I have to say that I thought it was Waters Light rather than vintage Waters but very readable, nonetheless.


    • I think that’s a harsh judgement. The plotting’s impeccable. I think the problem with having written books that will no doubt be future classics is that everything that follows is judged even more harshly. If this was a ‘younger’ writer, everyone would be raving about it.


  4. I had never heard of of the author, but it seems she’s well-known and respected. At first, when I saw the cover, I thought the book was a crime novel, but then I checked on BD and realized I was wrong… and was quite put off by the description. Why don’t they mention the suffragette side of the story? It is so silly, but I guess for marketing reasons to avoid putting off a certain kind of reader. Sad. Now that you mentioned it, I can’t wait to read the book.


    • Hi Elena, it does have a crime element – I didn’t mention it because to talk about the nature of it would be a massive spoiler. The suffragette side is more of a sub-plot/background.


  5. I love Sarah Waters, and I’m pleased to read praise, but I’d rather wait and read this one when the initial buzz has died down. And maybe re-read A Pin to See the Peepshow, the book SW wrote about in The Guardian first.


  6. Great review and you’re right. We do often underestimate how much goes into making something so readable. It’s interesting how almost every reviewer of the book notes how they want to say more but can’t because it would spoil the plot. Waters is so amazing at writing a compulsively readable story.


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