The Paying Guests By Sarah Waters

I am a slow reader, a late diagnosed dyslexic, a book can take me a good couple of months to get through, but I am still a lover of books and although I’ve succumb to the electronic age and read on a tablet a lot these days, I still love the feel of a real book in my hands. There is still something better about turning the pages, seeing your progress through the pages and the fear and excitement that you are near the end.

Recently I found a charity shop copy of The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, I have read all her previous novels and liked them (save for the The Night Watch, I wasn’t so taken with that). But this one sat on the side for months until I needed a distraction for a long journey, I mostly read on buses and tubes and not so much at home – I usually have other things to do – . But I picked it up and started to read and instantly got transported in the South London of the twenties.

So what’s made me write a review about this book? Well let me tell you about it first.

It’s 1922, five years after the end of the First World War, long enough for the dust to have settled but still not enough time for some wounds to have healed completely.
Francis Wrey and her mother live on Champion’s Hill, Camberwell, the big old house is mostly empty having lost all the men of the house, to the war and then her father died leaving the women to scrape by after he lost most of the family money.
The pair of women go about their business in the big empty rooms.
Mrs Wray with her charity and church work and with no maid she spends most of her life imitating a ‘Char Woman’ much to the chagrin of her mother, who feels the embarrassment of having her daughter scrubbing down the steps of the house.
But they have a new plan to bring in some money – Paying Guests – a polite term for lodgers. Having rearranged the house to mostly split the upper and lower parts, thus allowing the new tenants a mostly self contained apartment on the upper floor while the Wray’s occupy the lower. With the only exception that Francis kept her bedroom on the top floor and the bath and outside lavatory were accessed through the downstairs kitchen.
This thoroughfare become a major part of the whole story, that little doorway from hallway to kitchen, where the black and white tiles meet the grey kitchen floor stones, past the scullery and out into the garden is the pivot point for the whole house it seems.
In a House similar to this
The story starts as Francis Wray waits nervously for the new ‘guests’ to arrive. Mr and Mrs Barber, a Insurance Clerk and his young wife, having finally saved enough to move out of his parents home and find a place of their own, they move in to Champion’s Hill and into a new and better style of living.
Now this is a Sarah Waters novel, so you know what is going to happen, don’t you? (Well if I spoil this bit I’m sorry) but Mrs. Barber (Lil) is pretty in that conventional kind of way, the way that always makes a man stop and smile, tip his hat and need to make a comment, in the off chance that she may smile on him and make his day. But Frances is quite taken too, Mr. Barber (Len) is a cocky chap, with the ‘gift of the gab’, he sees Francis as someone to flirt with, but Ms. Wray is not taken by his innuendo or Music Hall humour. No Ms. Wray has eyes for only one thing – Mrs. Barber.
The tale progresses nicely, there are some wonderful descriptions of everything from the house to Lil’s clothes, Waters really did an epic amount of research for the book (I seem to think that is true for all her books). Slowly the home owner and lodgers get friendlier, the sharp edges are worn away Ms. Wray becomes Francis, Mr. Barber becomes Len and Mrs. Barber, Lil or Lily to everyone else become Lilian to Francis, a secret, special name for them.
Spending their days around each other they get closer until one night after a boring evening out Francis returns to find the guests enjoying a celebratory drink, she joins them and the ice really thaws between the three of them.
There are some dramatic twists in the story line, one that I suppose you are meant to be shocked by – I was not, but I was thinking how could you make this more than just a love affair tale and it’s the way I would have steered the story if I were the writer, so I guess that’s why I wasn’t surprised -.
But for all of this it still worked, I continued reading every night, every time I had a moment to catch up and being the aforementioned slow reader it took me three or four weeks to read it all.
I was gripped by the complexities of the characters, the beauty of the descriptions and the passion and gentle aching desires felt by the lovers. I especially liked the ‘Stake removal scene’ and what he meant, it was cute and sweet.
But it was the later anxieties and fears that really drew out the tension, made you feel what the characters felt.
The other twists and dramas are more unexpected and throw a number of spanners into the works. It is hard to explain some of the issues of this book without giving away a major part of the book.
Waters as I said is a methodical researcher, she lists the litany of things she read in preperation for this tale and it shows, but sometimes it feels like she read all these books, memoirs and accounts and needed to put them in, just to save her wasting her time, there are pages and pages of details and descriptions of rooms and how people sit in a room when they are bored and as wonderful as it is to realise this, it wasn’t needed. Having been told more than once to cut down the descriptions in my own work I can now see it in others, those editors in London, Paris and New York, the Beta Readers and all the rest needed to brave up and say to the award winning author, “Sarah, No!” For it was these four page descriptions that almost made me quit on the novel for a night. But thankfully I didn’t give up on the book and neither should you (maybe skim the occasional paragraph – or mark it to read later! Because they are beautiful, just not needed).
In all this is one of the best books I’ve read in a while and I applaud Sarah Waters for once again writing a compelling and tense novel. I would like to see a stretch from her in the future, could she write a straight love story or a tale with no love interest? Who knows, but as for The Paying Guests,  I give it 9/10 it has to loose a point for the long overly long, drawn out descriptions, but other than that it is a substantial book, so go find yourself a copy and make a cup of tea and dive in and enjoy.


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