"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, and how devastatingly, the disturbances will reach…"
About 180 pages in I realised that I was gripped and turning the pages at a rate of knots, even though the plot wasn't advancing as quickly and nothing had really happened. I think that shows the quality of the writing, that I was happy just to absorb the words and enjoy a study of the characters and their relationships, without any major plot developments. The story steadily moved from moment to moment, and I found a lot to savour in each scene. There are sections of writing that are delicious, there's no other word for it!
Suddenly, there's a significant event (I won't spoil it by divulging!) and we're hurtled into a full-pelt plot. I am not a fan of courtroom dramas, but this avoided being boring. Waters knows how to craft a character, particularly ones that aren't entirely likeable. You might be fooled for most of the first part of the book into thinking that the male characters are all bothersome nuisances. Then there's a shift, and you are shown glimpses of their vulnerabilities; they summon our pity, our understanding. Very deftly done.
I've read some criticisms of how unlikeable the characters are, and of how tediously domestic the female characters are. I can understand people wanting to read about likeable characters, but that does bore me after a time if everyone's perfect, so I quite like reading about people with flaws. As for the domesticity, the book is set after World War One, and women's roles were indeed very domestic - that's a reflection on the historical setting, and this book never intended to focus on progressive women joining the suffragettes. With the majority of the book being set inside the same four walls, that are both liberating and imprisoning in turn, I think the duality of a domestic situation is explored. I also like that it's a book set in the 20th Century that doesn't revolve around a world war, even if the aftermath is something it does touch on.
I am not sure that I love the story enough to want to read it again, but it did keep me entertained and turning the pages, and it certainly has prompted me to add more Sarah Waters' books to my reading list.
Have you read any Sarah Waters?
Published by Virago, The Paying Guests is out now. I received a copy for review, but as always, words and views are my own.