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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Affinity by Sarah Waters

AffinityAffinity by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Affinity back in June of this year, and it’s one of those few books that continues to haunt me months later. The descriptions of the labyrinthine Millbank women’s prison in Victorian London, and of the longing for beauty and connection in a world of despair, are exquisite.

The ending, in particular, really affected me. It’s hard to say more without giving things away, but, although the situation is completely different from my life (thank goodness!) in some way, I empathized painfully, truthfully, with the final, climactic night of the novel.

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Dark Tide by Elizabeth Haynes

Dark TideDark Tide by Elizabeth Haynes

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am rounding this up from 3.5 to 4 stars because I’m feeling a little like defending this underdog of a book; one which seems to be the lowest rated and reviewed of Elizabeth Haynes’ novels.
I love Haynes’ thrillers, from her debut Into the Darkest Corner, featuring a heroine with OCD and a scary stalker, to her third novel, Human Remains, featuring a very twisted murder method.
Dark Tide is Haynes’ second novel, and I’d never read it because all the reviews I saw were disappointing.
Luckily for me, I recently found myself in a reading slump, craving a thriller from one of my favorite authors (in the vein of Julia Crouch, Elizabeth Haynes, Nicci French). So, I picked up Dark Tide from my local library, and I’m so glad that I did.
I’ve found that having very low expectations of a book or movie often means that I actually appreciate the good things about it more. And while Dark Tide was different from the other thrillers I’ve read by Haynes, and was weak in some ways, I also found it to be quite enjoyable.
My favorite things about Dark Tide were the two “themes” it is based around, which are: fixing up and living on a houseboat on a marina near London, and pole fitness/dancing.
Both of these things are subjects I know next to nothing about, and I found reading about the main character, Genevieve’s, experience of them to be absorbing escapism.
Genevieve herself is a good person, and the tone of Dark Tide is also, at heart, decent. It’s a thriller in which bad people do bad things, but in which plenty of good, imperfect, people, also try their best. I really liked this about Dark Tide.
*Quick side note: I’ve recently been reading a lot of thrillers which are also categorized as “horror” and have realized that the element of horror…of a world that is ultimately evil and terrifying and bleak, is not one I enjoy immersing myself in. I love suspense and thrillers, and I like twisted plots, and mind-trips. I like excitement, but I don’t enjoy pure terror. Dark Tide is a good example of a thriller in which there was plenty of suspense, but which left me feeling hopeful.
Also, it is worth noting that I read the US edition of this novel, and the afterword stated that in this edition, the author appreciated that she had been encouraged to further develop Genevieve’s backstory. So it is possible that Dark Tide had differences from its original UK incarnation (Revenge of the Tide) which improved my impression of it.
Also, Elizabeth Haynes’ website includes a wonderful blog about Dark Tide with photos of many of the locations in England which inspired her novel.
Ultimately, Dark Tide is an enjoyable romantic-suspense novel, light on plot, but rich in interesting characters and settings. It’s different fare from the other novels I’ve read by Haynes, but I’m so glad I decided to give it a try.

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Tarnished by Julia Crouch

TarnishedTarnished by Julia Crouch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s a brief(ish) review of Tarnished, the third book I’ve read by gifted author Julia Crouch.
First of all, I’ve read Crouch’s novels out of order. I read Cuckoo (2011) first, and enjoyed it, feeling that the character depth distinguished Cuckoo from other thrillers in the domestic-noir genre.
Then, I read The Long Fall (2014), Crouch’s most recent novel. I absolutely loved this dual-time, dual-place mind-bender, and consider it one of my favorite books published this year.  The Long Fall contained fluent, beautiful writing, incredible travel escapism (one setting being the remote Greek island of Ikaria), and a page-turning plot. I also enjoyed reading about one character’s “makeover” from  being a naïve, hopeful, backpacking teenager, to that as a wealthy, elegant woman appearing to live the first-world dream.
I was also impressed at how unique Cuckoo and The Long Fall were from each other.  Which brings me to the main subject of this review, Tarnished.
It was with a bit of trepidation that I picked up Tarnished, which was published in 2013. I was worried that nothing could live up to the vicarious travel and glamour that The Long Fall had described so well. Tarnished was in fact very different Cuckoo and from The Long Fall, but in its own way, it was a bit of a masterpiece.
Rarely do I think of the word “saga” when I am reading a novel I would also categorize as domestic noir, but in Tarnished, I saw how the two words could be positively compatible.
The main thing that makes Tarnished (and really, all of the novels I have read by Crouch) extra special is how absolutely real and complex her characters feel.
In Tarnished, this characterization was especially impressive. Reading about Peg (our main character) and her girlfriend Loz, I felt like I got to know them as if they were real-life friends. Crouch seems to know her characters inside and out, and has the ability to share them powerfully through the written word.

At 375 pages in length, Tarnished is not a short novel. But as I flew through the story, I was totally sucked in to Peg’s world, and the mystery of her own past, and her family secrets.
One big difference between Tarnished and The Long Fall is that Tarnished is gritty pretty much all the time. The story takes place in a crowded, dirty, smelly home, in a hospital, and in a McMansion that despite being built with lots of money, stinks from an open cesspit nearby. Crouch is adept at describing grime, sickness, and poverty.
Tarnished gave me none of the holiday escapism that I loved in The Long Fall.  But this was as it should be, as Tarnished was its own, absorbing and unique story.
As a final note, I loved the scenes in Tarnished with Parker, the ex-military rogue with a heart-of-gold, and the setting in which Peg and Loz encounter him. To me, these episodes, as well as the seaside setting, with its driving cold rain and shifting tides, were almost cinematic in their vividness. I loved the experience of reading Tarnished. I hope Julia Crouch is writing away at this moment, creating her next addictive story to share with readers.

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