“They had no idea how decency, loyalty, courage, how it all shriveled away when one was frightened.”
So, days after finishing The Paying Guests I am still shaking my head in disbelief. Disbelief that a book can have the power to torment me and make me feel like it tied me to the rear bumper and dragged me backwards through vast wilderness of human emotions.
The story is set in London of the 1920s complete with luscious descriptions of fashion and day-to-day details of the post-war life. Left in difficult financial circumstances, Frances Wray and her mother have decided to take in lodgers to support their income.
What follows in the first half of this book is the slow but steady build up of tension which left me hanging on to every page with anticipation of when that tension would be released. If it would be released.
There is the tension between the characters. There is the issue of social tension, the contrast between the conventional and the modern, the question of roles. There is regret and the promise of making up for past mistakes. There is deceit and there is the test of courage. And…
“Didn’t they almost have a duty to make one small brave thing happen at last?”
What The Paying Guests offers is a masterful web spun by Waters’ meticulous detail and beautiful use of language. It’s a psychological thriller in the tradition of Patricia Highsmith or Alfred Hitchcock, except that Waters’ characters are more lifelike, likable, and that the full picture is not revealed until, … well, not until, you have been taken on this rollercoaster ride, and have progressed through the trials that the characters face, and not until you have worried with them, lived with them, and loved with them.
“But for now there was this, and it was enough. It was more than [I] could have hoped for.”
Needless to say, Sarah Waters has just claimed her spot on my “favourites” shelf.
This was a difficult review, not just because there are so many aspects to this novel that I am unable to summarise but also because when reading The Paying Guests it pays off to know nothing about it. However, there is one passage which I would like to quote but really do not want to spoil the reading experience for anyone.
So only read on if you either have read the book or have no intention of reading it:
“They faced each other in the silence broken by the trickle of a faulty cistern, by the flutter of pigeons in the light-well. The room smelt of bleach and of sour wet mops. But Lilian looked back at her with eyes grown silvery with tears, and for a moment, the room, the trial, Leonard, the summer, their whole affair, it was as if none of it had yet happened. As if their love were to be done again, but done properly. As if they were back in Frances’ bedroom the day after snakes and ladders, that imaginary stake just drawn from her heart. But across the moment there came from out in the hall the clanging of a bell, almost instantly followed by footsteps.”
5* (out of 5*)