The Paying Guests: Spotlight on Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am a huge fan of Sarah Waters’ novels. Waters is one of those authors who I think is truly exceptional and extraordinary.
There are a lot of things about Waters’ fiction that, to my mind, make it something precious. Here, in no particular order, are what come to mind.
First, her amazing, meticulous, meaningful, attention to detail. Waters’ novels are long, and they are dense. But the thing is, when you read them slowly, and literally pay attention to the details of place, and what the characters are doing in every ordinary moment, it matters.
Whereas a lot of authors of historical fiction (or fiction in general) rely on generalities to create a sense of place…for example, throwing a few words around, say, “misty moors” or “crumbling old mansion” and expect readers to mentally fill in a generic sense of place, Waters describes her world in particular, carefully chosen detail. When Waters writes, no description of washing dishes, or cleaning the stairs, is ever just the thing itself. It is an opportunity to create the feeling of being there, with the character, in that moment in history and in their life.
Second of all, Waters is a master of creating bubbling, under the surface, menace. In The Paying Guests, especially, this darkness is so woven into the fabric of the ordinary, that it is all the more chilling.
Waters’ thrillers are powerful in that they are not melodramatic (except when she does this purposefully). The Paying Guests is always about “real” people. There are no utter villains, no monsters. The characters are all flawed and human. They show impulses to love, but they also suffer cowardice, selfishness, and fear.
One underlying theme in The Paying Guests is the exploration of grief. Waters places this novel historically after World War I, when the world, and individuals, were grieving the loss of so very much. The menace that Waters creates in The Paying Guests, the secrets, and guilt, and fear, are related to her exploration of life in London after the Great War. Waters’ characters are struggling with the loss of the geographical boundaries of the world as they knew it, as well as the loss of a way of life and a class and gender system that is falling apart. They are grieving the loss of their brothers and lovers and sons. And in The Paying Guests, the main characters of Frances and Lilian are grieving a loss of their own innocence and of their own dreams.
Which brings me to the plot of The Paying Guests, which, as with pretty much every novel I’ve read by Sarah Waters, is not what it first appears. The basic premise is that Miss Wray-Francis-and her widowed mother, have fallen on hard times after the War, and, unhappily, find it necessary to allow lodgers to live in their home, in order to make ends meet. These lodgers, whom the Wrays refer to as “paying guests,” are a young married couple named Lilian and Leonard Barber. When the Barbers enter the Wrays’ home, all their lives will change in irrevocable and unimaginable ways.
What you need to know about The Paying Guests, if you’re considering reading it, is that, on the good side, it is among the very best of Sarah Waters’ work in its creation of a powerful, intimate sense of place. After reading this novel, I’m picking up historical fiction by other authors, and finding that the characters and their world feel like shadows in comparison. This creation of a wholly absorbing, authentic, fictional reality, is one of Waters’ great talents. As I read The Paying Guests, I thought (whimsically) that her characters must really exist, in some parallel universe.
On the other hand, Waters’ world and character building takes a lot of words. It can be an exhausting pleasure to read.
Also, if you’re considering reading The Paying Guests, you should know that, having read Affinity and Fingersmith previously, I found this novel to be less “shocking twist” and more grave and thoughtful in tone. When I think of Fingersmith, I think of fun, “oh my gosh!” moments of revelation, and a (with reservations) happy, hopeful ending. When I think of Affinity, I think of wonderful eerie spookiness, but also, great emotion and loss. Both these novels contained major twists I didn’t see coming.
To my mind, The Paying Guests didn’t have that twist aspect, at least not to the same degree. The last third of the novel was almost more of a courtroom drama. And I think, some of the choices that Frances and Lilian made, and even, especially, the options they had, made me sad. In the end, The Paying Guests had a plot that resonated with the postwar setting and the themes of grief, loss, change, and living with an uncertain future. But these themes are not easy ones to confront. As such, I found myself feeling sad at the end of the novel, feeling unsettled.
The Paying Guests is extraordinary, but it is also exhausting. When you start The Paying Guests, make sure you’ve got something light and bright to read or watch after.

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