This is one of the richest, most vivid and most fascinating pieces of historical fiction I’ve read this year — surpassed only by Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music. Like Donoghue’s novel, Sarah Waters’ latest novel deals with two women and a murder, but it’s the lovingly depicted background against which the story unfolds that makes it luminous and unforgettable.
It’s not a glamourous setting. The place is London; the time, 1922. In the aftermath of the Great War, Frances Wray and her mother are forced to go to previously unthinkable lengths to keep up the facade of their comfortable upper-middle-class life. With Frances’s father dead (of a stroke, leaving behind a trail of bad investments and debt) and both brothers killed in the war, with all the servants gone and no money to hire new ones, Frances has taken over the housekeeping chores herself. But even that’s not enough to make ends meet, and they are forced to rent out a set of upstairs rooms to “paying guests.”
It’s quite a come-down for Frances, a lively, intelligent and independent young woman who during the war was active in progressive causes, including the women’s suffrage movement, and who dreamed of moving away from her stuffy, respectable home and starting a new life in a little flat with her lover, Chrissie. In the wake of her losses Frances finds she cannot abandon her mother alone in a home they can no longer keep up. Chrissie moves on to find bohemian Bloomsbury bliss with another woman, and Frances is forced into the uncomfortable roles of both housekeeper and landlady, neither of which fits with the person she has always thought of herself as being.
As for the paying guests of the title, the new boarders are Leonard and Lillian Barber, a young couple of what France refers to as the “clerk class.” The masterfully depicted nuances of class distinction in 1920s England are one of the best things about the book; we understand completely Frances’s discomfort at socializing with Leonard and Lillian even as she becomes more closely drawn into the circle of their lives. Frances is struggling to maintain her place in a bygone social order even as her personal passions lead her in an unexpected direction.
I didn’t know anything about The Paying Guests when I picked it up except for being familiar with its author, and for the first one-third to one-half of the book I was fine with it just being a vivid period piece with a love story nestled inside (this is Sarah Waters, folks, so expect some fairly candid scenes of sexuality between two women!). But the story takes a darker turn when an unplanned act of violence throws everyone’s lives into disarray. From this point on it becomes a murder mystery — but a murder mystery seen in reverse, where our focus is on those who try to cover up the crime, and every step the police take towards uncovering the truth becomes a step closer to disaster. At this point an already interesting book became compelling to me and I found it impossible to put down.
One thought lingers: man, you really could literally get away with murder in the days before DNA analysis!