Tag Archives: Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests: Books to Avoid Reading On Your First Week of Carpool

Underwear Fashion

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.


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Filed under Bestseller, British literature, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner

The Little Stranger: Ghosts of my Ambi(valence)(guity)


Published just after (like months) the first season of Downton Abbey began, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger shares the basic plot features of the show (well, sort of): British aristocratic family falls on hard times after the end of the War (this time, WWII) as they are without fortune, but more importantly without a ‘place’ in a world that has moved past the need for lords and ladies.

Place is significant in The Little Stranger as the deteriorating manor house that forms the claustrophobic setting for the novel parallels the degradation of the family’s wealth and social standing. As a good gothic tale, the creaking house is a character in its own right, taking action – at first to protect and then to threaten – the family and any guests. Further gothic elements of maidens in distress, haunting figures and would-be heroes, The Little Stranger is as much an exercise in genre as it is an exploration of the consequences of changing social mores brought about by economic and political turmoil.

That exploration, while complicated and rich in the abstract, is captured in the novel in the minute interactions among characters, casual glances, waylaid gloves and dogs barking at the wrong time. That is to say, the fascination of changing social attitudes falters under the microscopic and magnified lenses of the novel. I am not ordinarily drawn to pages and pages detailing a parlour visit and the composition of the tea tray. Nor was I drawn to it in this instance. I suspect that if you have interest in the time period, or in ghosts and haunted mansions (or in considering how ghosts might be manifestations of our own interests) and mysteries, you’d enjoy the read.

My complaints registered, I should say that I found the mystery element compelling: how/whether the doctor-hero was, in fact, a murderous villain bent on protecting and seizing both the bodies and ideas of the aristocracy. And appropriately haunting. I’ve come back to did-he, didn’t-he in the days since finishing the book, more as wonder of how deceptive first person narration can be and how capable we are of deceiving ourselves – and the pleasure that comes from both.

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Filed under British literature, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner