I’m slowly working my way through the Baileys prize shortlisted books that I won a few months back (see post here) and this time it was the turn of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. I hadn’t been overly impressed with The Little Stranger when I read that a couple of years ago but I had enjoyed the BBC adaptation of The Night Watch so I didn’t really know what to expect from this book except that several friends had read and loved it.
After losing two sons in the Great War and their father soon afterwards, old Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances are reluctantly forced to take in “paying guests” to help with the cost of the upkeep of their house in well to do Champion Hill. Despite her determination to keep this couple from the “clerk class” at arms length, Frances is inescapably drawn to the striking Lillian Barber and repelled by her cocky husband, Len, in equal measure. Their relationship progresses to a dramatic climax with devastating consequences for everyone.
Waters’ cool prose hooked me from the first page and was immediately drawn into Frances’ world. She captures the era, when social structures were changing while the older generation and the establishment tried very hard to stop them, very well. The themes of gender, class and sexuality are largely handled deftly but there is the occasional line of dialogue or set-piece scene which feels as in Waters is too obviously trying to make a point. The characters are vividly drawn and for the first two-thirds of the book at least the tension builds and is maintained. However I felt the ‘denouement’ was poorly executed, for the last hundred pages or so I felt a little like it was treading water. I never lost interest but it didn’t match the drama of how the plot developed initially.
(NB there is a lot more I would like to say and discuss about this book but I am weary of writing anything more that could be too “spoilery”. If anyone wants to chat further, please make a comment/ ask a question!)