Friday, 17 July 2015

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

ReviewerJJ Marsh

What we thought: Like an old-fashioned kettle on the stove, this takes a while to come to the boil. But when it does, the steam and whistles could blow your head off.

Her father and brothers are all dead after the First World War and the servants have long departed. Frances Wray is left to cope with the house, her mother and her own disappointments alone. Her father’s poor money management has left them little. Ever practical, Frances decides to take in lodgers.

It’s an awkward fit, at first. The Barbers, of the ‘clerk’ class, have a different way of comporting themselves. She assumes the upstairs noises, interruptions to use the outdoor privy and sense of invasion must subside and for the sake of twenty-nine shillings a week, they’ll learn to ‘rub along together’.

And rub along they do.

Waters excels at the minute detail of life in 1922: the complexities of class and gender, the snobbery of social interactions, the collective weariness of post-war austerity, the eternal judgement. Interwoven between such stiffness is human heat – love, passion, frustration, anger and guilt. One night, the quiet household and its secrets explode, changing everything.

The pace builds slowly to a series of dramatic central events, leading to a long tense outcome, so that you feel in a similar kind of stasis, unable to move and gripped by the steady, unhurried unfolding of the story.

It’s classic Sarah Waters – brilliantly observed historical detail brought to sensory life, characters you understand and a situation whose elements lock into place like a Shakespearean tragedy. Epic drama on the smallest stage.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: The Night Watch, Tipping the Velvet, Birdsong

Avoid if you dislike: slow burners, early 1920s London, the unexpected

Ideal accompaniments: Wild strawberries, port and lemon, and Marie Lloyd’s Every Little Movement has a Meaning of its Own.

Available from Amazon

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