Book Review: The Paying Guests

Wednesday 17 September 2014 by

The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters, Book, ViragoThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Published by Virago

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in the south of the city, on genteel Champion Hill, in a hushed Camberwell villa still recovering the devastating losses of the First World War, life is about to be transformed.

Widowed Mrs Wray and her daughter, Frances – an unmarried woman with an interesting past, now on her way to becoming a spinster – find themselves obliged to take in lodgers.

The arrival of Liliana and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, brings unsettling things with it: gramophone music, colour, fun. Open doors offer Frances glimpses of the newcomers’ habits, sounds travel from their rooms to hers, and the staircase and landing have never seemed to her so busy.

As she and Lilian are drawn into an unexpected friendship, loyalties begin to shift. Secrets are confessed, dangerous desires admitted; the most ordinary of lives, it seems, can explode into passion and drama. And in the house of Champion Hill, no one can foresee just how far the disturbances will reach.


A friend and I decided to try out the Stylist Book Club last month and were delighted to find that for a mere £35, we would get our very own copies of The Paying Guests to read beforehand, a whole evening with Sarah Waters herself (and wine) plus a signed hardback copy of the book. I call that a bargain!

If I’m honest, I haven’t read an awful lot of Sarah Waters, although I know the stories well enough thanks to TV adaptations and endless rave reviews. The Paying Guests is perhaps only the second I’ve read. It tells the story of Frances and her mother and their lodgers, Lilian and Leonard, who turn Frances’ world upside down.

A blend of crime and romance, this is perhaps not the most straightforward of novels – there is no clear cut romance, nor is there a clear cut crime. Frances and Lilian find themselves in the middle of it all; in that hazy grey area that makes stories so interesting.

It was fascinating to hear Waters talk about the book and the process behind it. Her love and enthusiasm for the characters (and the 1920s) is palpable, and it made the book all the more enjoyable. Frances, as the protagonist, was the strongest for me, with a human depth and there wasn’t a moment when she made a decision that felt untrue.  And London, as so often in Waters’ novels (from all accounts) is a character in itself – you can clearly see her love for the city, and it’s nice to see some familiar places crop up, including the hotel we were sat in for the talk (playing the part of Leonard’s offices)!

Although I never had the chance (read: confidence) to speak up, I was dying to ask her: would you rather Frances end up with Christina than Lilian? I felt that throughout, Christina – Frances’ previous relationship – was always kinder to her than Lilian was. Lilian felt quite selfish and manipulative, making me mistrust her (but not disbelieve her as a character). In fact, Leonard bumbled unknowingly from loveable to creepy and cruel and back to sympathetic thanks to Lilian’s actions, and that makes her a very powerful tool throughout the book. The crime itself was the most breathless part of the novel, and from the dreamy meandering in the first act, we are thrown into claustrophobic, rushed scenes which leave you frantically turning the pages in an attempt to keep up.

If Waters ever wanted to get in to crime fiction, I would buy every novel; for an author I’ve mostly filed under “romance” her mastering of tension is impeccable. I read my copy within a matter of days (at 564 pages that’s no mean feat) and was left wanting more. The ending is left open – a deliberate ploy, as she explained – but it leaves you both satisfied and impatient for a conclusion. But this is a book of two parts in so many ways, and I find myself almost at a loss to marry the two for a complete review; you almost have to review part one and two separately (verdict: I preferred two to one!)

As someone who wasn’t the biggest Lilian fan, I found myself more intrigued by the peripheral characters – Frances’ mother, the absent brothers (could that be something for Waters to revisit in a new novel?) the loud and abrasive family of Lilian or the bustling neighbour, Mrs Playfair. Even Mr Crowther has the impression of more to give.

I was deeply impressed with this novel from start to finish, finding that even when I felt confident in what I was reading, it still startled me. Waters has a fantastic ability to generate a compelling, authentic story, and it’s no wonder they have been so popular for screen. However, I felt more impressed by the skill of the writer than I ever was by the characters themselves, and that tinged my enjoyment of it as a pure story, as I was constantly aware of the author’s presence. Not inasmuch as the writing suffered, but more I had an acute awareness that someone had written this (perhaps it was the fact that I was going to see her).

If you love Sarah Waters, you’ll love this book. If you’ve never read Sarah Waters before, you’ll love this book. The story is rich and involved, the atmosphere alternately dreamy and claustrophobic, the setting authentic, and the characters compelling. Neither romance nor crime, this is a perfectly balanced line between the two. But, if I was to recommend one thing: go and see Sarah Waters talk. The greatest experience of the whole thing.

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