The Paying Guests

Sarah Waters’ NeoGothic ingenuity astonishes me. With every novel she writes, she tweaks my inner Charlotte Bronte, my inner Emily Bronte, my inner Daphne DuMaurier in ways I could never imagine before. Waters’ latest novel, The Paying Guests, begins ordinarily enough, then spins into a vortex so intensely dark and chaotic that I can hardly begin to describe the range of emotions suffered by the reader. I agonized; I turned the pages faster and faster; I couldn’t put the book down. The Paying Guests is one of Sarah Waters’ best, an unforgettable narrative of passion and pain.

It’s set in 1922, when England was adjusting not only to the end of the war but also to the rigors that those who survived must face. Frances Wray and her mother live in a house much too grand and large for the two of them. Frances’ brothers were killed in battle, her father died when he learned of their loss. Mr. Wray, unfortunately, had made a series of poor investments, and suddenly the two surviving women find themselves impoverished. Not wanting to give up their beloved home, they decide to rent out the upstairs to a pair of lodgers, “paying guests,” as the Barkers are euphemistically described.

Leonard and Lily Barker are unlike any of the Wrays’ acquaintances, and seem like aberrations in their new abode. Len is a clerk; Lily, the daughter of shopkeepers. The first few pages of The Paying Guests set the stage for what will happen when two social strata, two worlds collide. The Barkers move in, bearing cheap furniture, tasteless knickknacks, and personalities radically different from the Wrays’ more conservative friends. Yet there is something oddly appealing about the Barkers. Lily, in particular, has more depth than her husband, so she and Frances strike up a friendship that increases in intensity as the story unfolds.

That story is told through the eyes and perceptions of Frances, whose current life has been stunted by her father’s death, her mother’s neediness, and their financial woes. How she comes to understand the Barkers, and how her life progressively meshes with theirs’, forms the essence of The Paying Guests.  Like so many powerful novels, this one holds secrets that smartly reflect a milieu. Post-World War I saw endless debates about women’s suffrage, about society’s expectations of wives, about women’s professional opportunities. Constraints were giving way to possibilities, and women like Frances and Lily—albeit in totally different circumstances—are intensely troubled by how to navigate the future.

Once again, I find myself writing a cryptic review. I’ve said enough to tantalize a reader, but I hope not enough to give the labyrinthine plot away. Navigating the twists and turns of Waters’ tale is unbelievably compelling, though the NeoGothic ambience is sometimes impossibly heart-wrenching. Nonetheless, to read The Paying Guests is to relish the creativity of a writer in total control of her subject. One unexpected event smartly cascades into another. The characters make incredible choices, and then live plausibly with the consequences. I don’t want to spoil the surprises! Suffice to say that The Paying Guests deserves critical accolades and the full admiration of a discriminating set of readers. I strongly recommend Sarah Waters’ latest success.   – Ann Ronald

Also available by Sarah Waters: Fingersmith; Tipping the Velvet; The Little Stranger; The Night Watch; Affinity.

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