Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is set in 1922 London. Setting is important here because the backdrop of postwar changes in economics and class, social and gender expectations and disaffection with the grand truths of justice deepen the themes explored in this erotic noir. (I didn’t realize I was choosing a novel with erotic scenes when I picked it up from my shelf (the last of the holiday haul), though I ought to have known better having read – and enjoyed – Waters’ The Little Stranger and The Night Watch. Reading it during my first weeks of a carpool positions me to give this advice: be prepared to squirm for ten odd pages).
The novel follows the life of Frances as she struggles to maintain the family home in the absence of male income (see Remains of the Day). Forced to take on ‘paying guests,’ she and her mother are joined in their aging home by the lower-class, freer spirits of Lilian and Leonard Barber. If the first half of the novel traces the budding… relationships between Frances and the couple, the second half takes a decidedly different turn in exploring love tested not by societal expectation, but by conscience and trust. Rather than fuss too much about who loves whom, the novel instead explores the nervousness of (new) love and the doubt that accompanies it (and it goes to some plot extremes to do so).
I very much enjoyed this one. Well crafted, expert character development, written with careful and evocative language (*cough*) it is a delight to be immersed in. Though I’ll admit that after A. pointed out the frequency of the word ‘queer’ in the novel I was somewhat distracted by its repetition (a project for some student to trace and explore diction in Waters’ work – the way she works the connotations of the early 20th century against that of the contemporary reader).
In entirely unrelated matters, I finished reading the novel in the campus gardens during lunch today. In writing this post a bug has flown out of my hair and now I can’t stop checking to make sure there aren’t more insects all. over. me. Such are the hazards of having this literary vice.