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The Paying Guests

by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters had done it again! THE PAYING GUESTS is a tour de force packed with drama, power, tension and passion in a bleak, class-ridden 1920s setting.

It is 1922 in post WW1 Camberwell. Frances Wray and her mother are living in straightened circumstances having lost the men in their lives in that ghastly war that was going to end wars. The servants have long gone and Frances cleans and scrubs the house for a mother who seems as shell-shocked as some of the poor ex-servicemen that sell goods on street corners, seemingly abandoned by the country they fought to save. With no money to speak of (father made some unwise investments) and having sold off as much as they dare, Frances and her mother have to swallow their pride and take in lodgers, or more genteelly, ‘paying guests’.

Enter Lillian and Leonard Barber, or Lil and Len as they call each other. A young vibrant couple of the “clerk class”, they enliven the rather staid house with Len’s gramophone records and Lil’s modern bright clothes and bobbed hair. Frances watches them in awe. How different they appear to her, an unfulfilled blue-stocking, living at home with her mother, with her dull grey clothes and her intellectual, arty friends up in town. But as Frances gets to know Lilian better it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems in the Barber household. And the house itself is a pivotal character. Most of the action takes place here with glances and glimpses through half-open doorways, passing on stairs and in hallways, half-heard arguments, drinking and dancing and poor Frances all the while trying to maintain an air of respectability, cleaning and polishing the house with an almost Lady Macbeth like fervour - as though in anticipation of things to come.

Now this is where I can reveal no more of the plot. Suffice to say that things take a very ugly turn and the drama and tension mounts until it is almost unbearable. Sarah Waters is the doyenne of dramatic period writing and in THE PAYING GUESTS she also sensitively embraces sexual politics, moral responsibility, and class division. Exceptional.

Published by Virago – 565pp

Irene Haynes

Read our 2009 interview with Sarah Waters.

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