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The Paying Guests

by Sarah Waters (Virago, 2014)

Take an illicit romance, add a cheerless background of post-WWI London, churn in a terrible accident, sprinkle some intense conflict. That’s a recipe for a cracker of a story. Add to it the fact that it comes from the author of the sublime Fingersmith, the hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck Affinity and the quaint, suspenceful Little Stranger and you’re looking at a tale guaranteed to enthral, thrill and shock in equal measure.

The year is 1922 and England is still recovering from World War I. Uemployed, empoverished ex-servicemen roam the streets and petty crime is on the rise. In a ‘respectable’ south London neighbourhood, Frances Wray and her mother are the epitome of genteel poverty. They live their dreary lives in their dreary, crumbling house. Brothers, sons, husband and father have been lost variously to the war and to illness, and money is short. So, of course, the logical option is to take in lodgers—’paying guests’ in polite-speak. Thus, with various misgivings and trepidation, the mother–daughter pair welcome the ‘clerk-class’ couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber, into their lives and try not to cringe at their loud voices and their garish decor.

While their tenants bring in some desperately-needed cash, the Wrays struggle to accustom themselves to strangers in their house. Frances is discomfitted by Leonard’s overfamiliar banter laced with innuendo, even as Lillian draws her inexplicably closer. Of course, the inevitable happens and Frances and Lillian embark on an illicit and passionate affair that threatens to unravel all their lives. And if that isn’t enough, the old adage about being careful what you wish for lest it come true does in fact come true in a horrifying manner, tumbling the two women and others around them into a spiral of lies and deceit that cannot possibly have a painless ending.

Oddly, however, The Paying Guests ends up being quite disappointing. Even though Waters builds a stunning atmosphere of a slow, plodding, sometimes bleak, life lived in a time when too much has been lost by war, that’s about it. The characters are far from convincing, the story completely predictable. The latter, perhaps, is the novel’s most glaring flaw: that it fails to keep you guessing; nothing at all happens that you don’t expect to happen. There are no suprising, no sudden turns. One was holding out for a twist towards the end—come on, who remembers Fingersmith?—and indeed there were some tantalizing possibilities, but nothing materialzied.

The Paying Guests is presented in a classic three-act structure. In Part I, we have the build-up and background. This, of course, is Waters’ strong suit and she hasn’t failed us here—the funereal, brooding, almost portentous atmosphere is stunning. Frances struggles to keep the house from falling apart, keep it clean and respectable, and all the while protect her mother from the truth of exactly how hard it all is. The introduction of the Barbers and their insinuation into Frances and her mother’s lives, and Frances’ growing attraction for Lillian is set up. The second part is about Frances and Lilian’s relationship, their balancing act, which comes undone as we draw to the end of this section, setting us nicely up for the third and final act, the resolution. It leaves Frances and Lillian attempting to claw their way back from the inextricable mess they find themselves in—both separately and together.

What is odd is that Waters fumbles when it comes to Frances and Lilian’s relationship. The story is told from Frances’ perspective, and though it starts out promisingly, her internal monologue is grating after a point, especially in the last third of the story. The chemistry between the two women seems forced, even false, except perhaps in the first part of the story. Not only is it hard to sympathize with either character, after a point you ask yourself what exactly they see in each other. The ‘quickenings’ that take place between them are jarring—perhaps that word has been used too many times for comfort.

The ending is disappointing too and not completely convincing. Overall, the book seems needlessly wordy, not just Frances’ dialogue with herself, but also the descriptions. There are bits that go on and on, and yet appear quite unecessary to the narrative and—not to put too fine a point on it—some that are inexplicably boring. It is wholly possible that the dull and plodding style is deliberate, to underline the monotonous drudgery of Frances’ life, but somehow one doubts it. Sample this:

That was on the Thursday evening. The Friday dawned very fair. And the Saturday, the day of the party, was warm…

It turns out that The Paying Guests has been nominated for the Bailey’s Prize. Which is mystifying news about a book that came very close to ending up on the ‘impossible-to-finish’ pile.

RATING: 5/10

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