‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters
Author: Sara Rauch
September 14, 2014
Earlier this year, when Lambda crowd-sourced #abooksavedmylife, one of the first books I thought of was Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet. Fourteen years ago, just before I started questioning my sexuality, I was having lunch with my best friend in New York City when she fished a battered copy of Tipping the Velvet out of her enormous purse and handed it to me. You, she said, her eyes bright, are going to love this book. As ever, she was right.
I’ve been devouring Sarah Waters’ novels ever since. Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith are lesbian classics, and her gothic ghost story, The Little Stranger, was short-listed for the Orange Prize and named one of 2009’s best books by Salon.com. Three of her novels have been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and several of them have been New York Times’ bestsellers. To call her work smart and sexy and entrancing would only begin to sum it up.
Waters’ sixth and newest novel, The Paying Guests, tells the story of Frances, an unmarried woman in her late 20s living with her mother in south London. It’s 1922, and London is on the brink of major change. The Great War has ended, social mores are uneasily shifting, the class systems are in upheaval, and for Frances and her mother, life has been utterly changed: their money and their men are gone, their family house on Champion Hill is in the process of falling apart; in order to pay their mounting bills, they take in lodgers (called, in this genteel society, “paying guests”). The lodgers, Lilian and Leonard, are of the clerk class, and from the first sentence, the first scene, there is necessary tension in this new situation. The tension builds in a slow simmer over the first part of the novel as Frances, a bleeding heart, opinionated, “cross-grained” lesbian, realizes her attraction to Lilian. Once that attraction is consummated, the tension amps quickly to rapid boil. France and Lilian’s connection drives this book, and the frantic release of their love is soon followed by an act of sheer, if unintentional, brutality, which sets into motion a series of heart-wrenching, misguided, and complex actions and revelations.
Waters is an ace storyteller and a remarkable re-builder of the past. The Paying Guests is a page-turner with a twisting plot, but it is also a psychologically intense examination of what it is like to live with a secret and grapple with consequences, the altering power of fear, how humans make sense of tragedy and guilt, and ultimately, the innate human desire to live, even in the most dire circumstances. There is, in the final third of the book, a very strong emphasis on sensationalism—the rise of tabloid culture and voyeurism; what Frances calls “the loathsome glamour of it all”—but like all of Waters’ work, this examination of cultural shifts never feels expository. The pacing of The Paying Guests is impeccable, and as the story winds toward a heart-racing climax, it tightrope-walks questions of guilt and innocence, life and death, without ever moralizing.
The Paying Guests is full of ruins, and ruins are important here—as always, Waters nails her metaphors, weaving them into the story effortlessly—the class system of post-WWI Britain is crumbling, the house on Champion Hill is crumbling, Lilian and Leonard’s marriage is crumbling, everything, it seems, is crumbling. And everyone in this book, from Frances and Lilian to the most minor character, is running around trying to hold it all together. It is heartbreaking and terrifying to watch the horrible transformations of this narrative unfold.
Despite her return to lesbian protagonists, The Paying Guests has a different feel than Waters’ earlier novels. The shift is subtle, but this newest is rather sober; the romance between Frances and Lilian, while all consuming and vividly emotional, never veers into that breathy, first-kiss-butterflies territory. The story is imbued with emptiness and absence; even in its most hopeful moments—and there are a few here—a kind of bleakness lurks frighteningly nearby.
It is impossible not to get lost in Waters’ novels—her worlds are spectacularly and vividly drawn—and The Paying Guests is no exception. Brilliant and complex, dark and honest, this book is a must read.
The Paying Guests
By Sarah Waters
Hardcover, 9781594633119, 576 pp.