The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests

The latest Sarah Waters was published in August 2014 and was immediately added to my list. I avoided reading any reviews at all so that I could approach it with a completely open mind. I’m so glad that I did! Waters is truly a master of the atmospheric novel, and this satisfyingly chunky story is no exception.

What the blurb says:

‘There came the splash of water and the rub of heels as Mrs Barber stepped into the tub. After that there was a silence, broken only by the occasional echoey plink of drips from the tap…

‘Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, was what it really meant to have paying guests: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door. An image sprang into her head: that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat.’

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

This is vintage Sarah Waters: beautifully described with excruciating tension, real tenderness, believable characters, and surprises. It is above all a wonderful, compelling story.

This novel is incredibly hard to review without giving away some pretty hefty spoilers which I really want to avoid… But, for me, this was a story in three parts. The first part creates that atmosphere that Waters is so good at. It introduced the main characters, sets the scene and presents a vivid portrait of post-war London and the aftermath for one family – Mrs Wray and her 30-something daughter Frances.

The second part begins with a particular event. One I really didn’t see coming, but which I then felt in hindsight I had been stupid not to foresee. It’s even vaguely hinted at in the blurb above – maybe that’s only obvious in hindsight though! Suddenly the pace of the novel dramatically speeds up and I found I was reading far larger chunks in one go; I found Waters’ exploration of certain issues in this part of the novel absolutely fascinating. In lots of way, 1920’s London was very different; in lots of ways it hasn’t really changed at all.

The third and final part slows down again, culminating in another BIG event and then a gradual denouement. I have since read some other reviews and many people have complained about the ending. I’m not going to comment further other than to say I’m not really sure where else it could have gone. In my experience, Sarah Waters’ novels are never really about the conclusion – they are about the journey and this was undoubtedly an immersing one.

This novel explores family relationships, marriage, love and friendship but also death, murder, abuse and infidelity. It isn’t a roller-coaster of a thriller. It’s a quiet, reflective, evocative, tender story overshadowed by tragedy in its various guises.

‘If one forgot the blood, the electric panic, the police, the newspapers. If one made one’s mind a blank. Then couldn’t it be how it used to be, the two of them together, warm and true?’

A perfect book to immerse yourself in during the cold, winter months and one which would make a fantastic gift.

The Paying Guests is available on kindle: The Paying Guests

Or hardcover: The Paying Guests


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