The best novels are experienced rather than merely read, and Sarah Waters’ “The Paying Guests” is one of those rare and brilliant creations. I fell in love with this book, utterly addicted to all 600 of its pages, unperturbed by its glacially-paced first half, and obsessed with discovering the fate of its characters after the narrative takes a darker, violent turn.
It’s 1922, and Frances Wray lives with her mother in their grand family home in South London. Her two brothers were killed in the war, and her father died soon afterwards, leaving behind immense debt the surviving Wrays can’t possibly resolve on their own. To alleviate their financial woes, and much to their chagrin — who, after all, wants strangers gallivanting around their home — they rent out rooms to Leonard and Lilian Barber.
Frances is initially wary of her lodgers; standoffish, almost, their exchanges brusquely genteel. But an attraction quickly forms between Frances and Lilian, and the story is soon fuelled by ‘will they/won’t they’ tension, which thickens when they do, as they desperately scrabble for time alone to consummate their love. And then, something happens, an act of violence, a moment of crescendo, that tilts the narrative on its axis, transforming it into a suspense-filled, white-knuckled crime drama, turning my compulsion to read into a physical force.
“The Paying Guests” is so perfectly formed, deliberately paced in order to richly texture its characters, so its melodrama reverberates. It was my first Sarah Waters, and it won’t be my last. “The Little Stranger” awaits on my reading stack.