The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters


It was Michael Dirda's review in The Washington Post that drew me to this book; he said the book quickly has you in thrall. That at the end "you find yourself emotionally sucked dry, as much stunned as exhilarated by the power of art." It's true, I was in thrall, read faster and faster as it went along, and was stunned and overwhelmed by the end.

Sarah Waters is, according to Wikipedia, a Welsh novelist, best known for novels set in Victorian society, featuring lesbian protagonists. This one is set in 1922 and Frances Wray is the lesbian protagonist. She and her mother are struggling to maintain their large house in the fine area of Champion Hill and find the answer in taking in lodgers, or as a polite family friend called them, "paying guests." The combination of a father given to bad investments and the death of her two brothers in the war has left the two in grief and straightened circumstances.

They work to maintain the facade of their former life and Frances gives up a life in the city with her former love Christina to take care of her mother whose work is limited to church and charity work outside the home. Frances does heavy housework when she is out to protect her mother from the indignity of seeing her daughter scrubbing the floor on her knees. 

Another aspect of the sad times they live in is the devastation of survivors of the war. At a family friend's house, another guest, Mr. Crowther, tells Frances about his war and post-war experience:

It was real, stinking hell. But the queer thing is, I sometimes find myself missing those days….Back here, now it's all over–well, there isn't a great deal for one. Lots of one's friends dead, and so on. And there are no paid posts for men like me….Other fellows I know are drifting about, getting into this, getting into that. None of us has any sticking power. I feel half in a daze, myself. Ceylon, South Africa–I'll never get there. Or if I do, I'll wear my days away just as I wear them away here.


All of this is the backdrop to the main story of course. Very slowly, inch by inch, Frances becomes friends, then lovers with the wife of the "clerk class" couple who are the paying guests. (And I can't think when I've read a book with more specific sexual activity description than this one.) Mrs. Barber then becomes Lilian and eventually the two want to escape Mr. Barber and Frances' mother to live on their own in the city. Lilian turns up pregnant and convinces Frances to help her when she takes pills that will cause her to abort. When Leonard comes home early and finds what's going on and Frances tells him they are lovers, he attacks Frances and Lilian kills him. They drag him outside the house and cover the evidence as well as they can and await discovery. The story does not end here and there is much ground yet to cover that I have not revealed.

Have you ever dreamed that you were an accomplice to murder and had to hide a body? I have had that dream several times and so this was a nightmare of a book for me. But I was in thrall and finished it with relief. Sarah Waters does capture you and won't let you go until the end. 

Sarah Waters, The Paying Guests, Riverhead Books, 2014, 576 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available at the UVa and public libraries, and from Amazon. There are 78 holds on it at the public library.

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