Review of The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters


I tracked this book down after a number of my students and online friends recommended it. Would I enjoy it as much as they did?

thepayingguestsIt is 1922 and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in the south of the city, on genteel Champion Hill, in a hushed Camberwell villa still recovering from the devastating losses of the First World War, life is about to be transformed. Widowed Mrs Wray and her daughter, Frances – an unmarried woman with an interesting past, now on her way to becoming a spinster – find themselves obliged to take in lodgers. And the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, brings unsettling things with it: gramophone music, colour, fun…

That’s as much of the very blurting blurb I’m prepared to include, as the rest of it lurches into Spoiler territory and given that this is such a cracking tale, having the shine knocked off it in any way would be an outright sin. However, I will disclose that there are some fairly explicit sex scenes between two women – while it is handled with tenderness, if you find such material difficult to deal with, then this isn’t the book for you.

The protagonist, Frances, is sleep-walking through her life, numbed by the loss of all her dreams, the death of her brothers during the war and any prospect of escaping the drudgery of trying to keep the house in one piece over their heads. Waters beautifully portrays the ashy wasteland of her life without any handwringing self-pity. In fact, it is Frances’ stubborn ability to endure that is one of her greatest strengths – and weakness. Waters builds up a detailed portrait of her main character by walking us through her life, giving us a plethora of period details that has me humbly giving thanks for my washing machine, dishwasher, wet-wipes and nifty throw-away duster mops…

It is really important that we strongly bond with Frances in the early stages of the book – because if we don’t really care about her and feel appalled at having a ringside seat as she atrophies in front of us, then we’ll clearly struggle later on. Because the story morphs from being a beautifully depicted period piece about the plight of women at a particularly grim time in English history into a police investigation, culminating into a classic courtroom drama. A drama with Frances caught up right in the middle of the action…

I had intended this morning to read for half an hour, and then get up. An hour and a half later, rather drained and emotional, I tottered out of bed, having completed the book. It is a triumph. Waters manages to weave a thriller in amongst her wonderfully observed early 1920’s landscape that is a masterpiece. No wonder everyone was so effusive in their praise – and I am now joining the chorus. If you haven’t yet read this gem, and your taste runs to historical thrillers interleaved with a strong, convincing love story, then track it down.

4 responses »

  1. Great review, Sarah! For some reason, the 1920s isn’t a time period that grabs my attention too often. My historical fiction tastes tend to run to World War II (I don’t know why, I just happen to have a number of WW2-era novels) or to drastically different cultures than mine (Native Americans, ancient Egypt, to name a couple). But this sounds like a pretty good book, especially if a number of people are praising it so highly.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Sara:) It’s a fairly grim time, historically. We were suffering in this country, culminating in the Great Strike of 1926 – and that sense of loss and greyness is very effectively portrayed in the book. It’s beautifully written – I tried ‘Tipping the Velvet’ years ago and couldn’t get on with it. But this is a real gem.

  3. Such a well-written book review, Sarah! Thanks for sharing! “The Paying Guests” sounds like a book my partner Andrew would love; he’s really into historical fiction and English history in general.

    I love learning about the 1920s in America, but I don’t know much about what when on in London back then. Perhaps I will add this to my TBR list 🙂 Also, I must say, the font face used for the book cover is awesome! O_O

    Have a great day! Thanks for stopping by my blog a couple weeks ago, by the way 🙂 Sorry it took me so long to visit!

    Wendy Lu Writes

    • Thank you so much for visiting and taking the trouble to comment, Wendy. I can recommend ‘The Paying Guests’ as a really well-written book and the historical backdrop is beautifully observed. I’m glad you noticed the book cover font – it harks back to the book covers of the time… I grew up with my grandparents, who had shelves of books produced in the 1920’s and 1930’s with that sort of font…

      Hope your writing is going well:))

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