At just 26, Francis Wray, the protagonist of Sarah Waters’ latest novel, has already let life slip through her fingers. Burdened by her late father’s debts, her life seems as drab as the postwar London suburb in which she lives with her widowed mother. In a house absent of servants, it is left to Francis to fill the role of housemaid and cook but even these efforts are not enough to maintain their once-grand house. In a moment of considered desperation, the Wray women place an advertisement for lodgers .
As the novel opens we see how their reduced circumstance s bring them into strange intimacy with the Barbers – the titular “paying guests” – who rent the advertised rooms and transform them to their image:
It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick. The faded carpet in her mother’s old bedroom was lost beneath pseudo-Persian rugs. The lovely pier-glass had been draped slant-wise with a fringed Indian shawl … the wicker birdcage twirled slowly on a ribbon from a hook that had been screwed into the ceiling; inside it was a silk-and-feather parrot on papier-m â ch é perch .
The young couple and their invited intrusion quickly upend Francis’ orderly life, “She simply hadn’t prepared herself for the oddness of the sound and the sight of the couple going about from room to room as if the rooms belong to them. When Mr. Barber, for example, headed back upstairs after a visit to the yard, she heard him pause in the hall. Wondering what could be delaying him, she ventured a look along the passage and saw him gazing at the pictures on the walls like a man in a gallery. Leaning in for a better look at a steel engraving of Ripon Cathedral he put his fingers to his pocket and brought out a matchstick, with which he began idly picking his teeth.”
Yet Francis is not simply an observer, she finds herself the observed as well: “He [Mr. Barber] seemed to enjoy watching her work. His blue gaze travelled over her and she felt him taking her all in: her apron, her steam-frizzed hair, her rolled-up sleeves, her scarlet knuckles.” The first to poke fun at her own poverty, his unsaid observations nevertheless rankle Francis while interactions with Mrs. Barber are similarly fraught, but for altogether different reasons. For a time, however, a balance is struck , however uneasy , and while longtime fans of Waters will not be shocked by the turn of events, those new to her work may be surprised by how the plot unfolds.
A Man Booker Finalist for Fingersmith (2002), The Night Watch (2006) and The Little Stranger (2009) the first of which centered on the Victorian era and the latter two on the 1940s, Waters has turned to the 1920s for inspiration for her sixth novel. Far removed from the jazz and gin that characterizes so many novels set in during the “roaring twenties,” The Paying Guests instead focuses on those s hifting social and economic relationships that shook families like the Wrays and elevated persons like the Barbers. Issues of class, gender, love and desire, and courage and cowardice underpin the novel and it is largely the setting that allows for such themes to develop.
For a s much as anything, this is a story about a house. Once, we are told, it was a “fine old house,” fringed by spacious gardens, set on a leafy street on Champion Hill , surrounded by other stately homes. Indeed, despite its location, set firmly in the suburbs of London , the house brings to mind those grand country homes that seem to populate so much of the British literary landscape – from Thornfield and Wuthering Heights to Atonement ’s Tallis House and The Little Stranger ’s Hundreds Hall, as featured in Waters’ 2009 offering.
These houses, with their twisting corridors and darkened corne rs, create the ideal set ting for whispered secrets and longing glances, making them the ideal setting to explore forbidden attraction. Yet the house is also a testament to a bygone era, serving as a sort of crumbling mausoleum for a way of life that has been lost in the trenches along with a generation of young men. Indeed, the house is so central to creating tension in the plot that when the characters move outside , the novel at times seems to sag. This is in large part because of the character of Francis; privy only to her thoughts and motivations, which provides a sense of intrigue for the reader, her self-imposed exile and subservience to the house means that her movements outside of it read as somewhat false. For while she may feel t rapped by the house, this sense of captivity gives her power and energy as a character.
The novel is divided into three sectio ns and while Part One is eminently readable, ending delicately and perfectly about 200 pages in, the rest of the novel lacks the tautness that propels the first section. It is not that the plot meanders, but rather the direction it takes seems a bit predictable. There are some overly convenient twists and turns toward the end of the novel and the final pages, unfortunately, read as rather anticlimactic if true to the characters. Yet , Waters’ characteristic eye for detail makes the novel worth reading. She does not overwhelm her characters with stuffy period dialogue nor does she transport modern characters into the past. Rather she creates believable characters trapped by the expectations of the time in which they live.