Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on The Paying Guests.
The Paying Guests is Sarah Waters best fictional work yet, a story bringing home the pain, beauty and all the chaos of thwarted love. Such is the novel’s poignancy that I found myself laying the book down several times to wipe the salty blur from my eyes. Plunging us into 1922 London, Waters unfolds her tale through the bleary existence of spinster Francis Wray. Living with her rapidly aging mother in a crumbling-down house at Champion Hill, it’s hard for Francis to imagine that the life, partying and glamour of London is only a mile or two further north.
Apart from occasional spells of restlessness, Francis’ days consist of cleaning, the rare cigarette, going to the cinema with her mother, and occasionally visiting her best friend, Christina, who lives in bohemian Bloomsbury. There are longings and desires, of course (“physical matters”) and although Francis has no “last-century inhibitions” about dealing with “that sort of thing,” she cannot seem to vocalize her orientation. Her mother is mistrustful of her for reasons she cannot pinpoint. But Francis’ innate awareness and her undeniable reality make her emotions and struggles vividly real and painful. Francis cannot commit because to do so is to risk ridicule and contempt from society, directed at both herself and whomever she loves.
The ensuring post-war years have not been kind to the Wray family. The quaintness of Francis’ youth has been replaced by a chaos of conflicts of interest and a sense of futility. Francis’ father has died of a heart attack, and her brothers were killed in the war. Faced with the vanished family fortune, a confessional, and an affair that she didn’t feel the least bit ashamed of, Francis decides to become a landlady in order to pay the bills, reluctantly placing an advertisement in the South London Press so she can rent out the creaky rooms upstairs.
As devastating as the facts of Francis’ orientation may be, everything changes with the arrival of gingery-haired clerk Leonard Barber and his glamorous wife, Lilian. Francis feels a flutter of panic at opening up her house to this young and brash couple who could be “thieves or invaders.” The smell of Leonard’s cigarettes make Francis uneasy as does Lilian’s stylishness, her dark-lashed eyes and glamorous bohemian ways. This woman, “this more or less perfect stranger” who has been summoned into her life makes Francis feel “old-maidish” with her pinned-up hair and her angles modeled after “the fashion of the War.”
With Francis and Mrs. Wray keeping to their evening routines, sitting as tensely “as unhappy visitors,” the previously silent house suddenly becomes full of “bumps and creaks “and roars of mirth” from the floor above. Lilian parades around in her Turkish slippers, her hair done up in a red silk scarf. Francis marvels at Lilian’s candor, her simplicity and lack of self-consciousness, while Leonard’s dirty little “innuendos” make him as reliable as a cuckoo. It suddenly occurs to Francis that the Barbers marriage has been anything other than happy. She’s unnerved by them and reminded of how little she knows them, though there’s something seductive about the idea of Lilian.
Waters’ images of love and love’s betrayal haunt us until the final dramatic events encompass us like a great and towering spirit. In her characteristic bold, straightforward style, Waters presents the injustices of the time and a post-war London that spares no detail of torturous indignity. Francis soon becomes a suspect, charged and tarnished by a confession. Although she considers herself to be a confirmed spinster, her attraction cannot be denied. Lilian herself is trapped in a marriage with lecherous Leonard, yet from their mystifying union comes a “smudge of discomfort” coupled with Francis’s hesitations that she’s getting mixed up with “something dark and unkind.”
Waters’ talent is that she can make us keep reading about Francis’ world, a world so hollowed out by tiredness and by uncertainty. This angst drives the story. Waters depicts Francis in a way that reflects her deepest longings. Francis and Lilian’s growing fondness is counterbalanced by Francis’ inner strength and desire to stand on her own two feet, and by Lilian’s ambition to be more than just a pretty face. Waters does an outstanding job of depicting London of another time, another place, and of a sensibility in which Francis’ love is seen as unnatural and depraved: “People like me get called obscene.”
While Waters delivers what is to be expected from such fine historical fiction, she’s also able to construct a narrative which moves with a variety of disturbing incidents to the inevitable, heartbreaking tragedy. The smells of London mark the reality of Francis’ situation: petrol, soot, manure, and asphalt, the areas of Bloomsbury Street and the gardens at Russell Street. But what good is going through the War and gripping each other’s hands when Francis must yet face all of the crumbling walls she has been frantically trying to prop up?
In a story of two dissatisfied, disenfranchised women, there is in each character a pulling-away from what they think is real, and a sense of choosing from two dark, tortured paths. In a moment that seems lost in the merest glimmer of a slender, cast-out line, Waters gives the reader a sense that we are right at the heart of Francis and Lilian’s tenuous existence, if only for a time.