Sunday 7 December 2014

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

'There came the splash of water and the rub of heels as Mrs Barber stepped into the tub. After that there was a silence, broken only by the occasional echoey plink of drips from the tap...
'Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms - as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, was what it really meant to have paying guests: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door. An image sprang into her head: that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat.'
It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.
For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the 'clerk class', the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.
This is vintage Sarah Waters: beautifully described with excruciating tension, real tenderness, believable characters, and surprises. It is above all a wonderful, compelling story.

Angi & I at our event in Birmingham
I'm thrilled to welcome my friend Angi back to Random Things today. Angi has written this guest blog spot - her review of The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. 
This is the second time that Angi has been my guest here, she also reviewed The Movement of Stars by Amy Brill back in January of this year. 

I've known Angi for around 6 years now, we met online through our love of books and have met in person many times over the past few years.  Angi is an Associate Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan 
University and also writes herself.  Angi is on 
Twitter @josephsyard

The Paying Guests was published by Virago in hardback on 28 August 2014.

Angi's thoughts on The Paying Guests:       In her latest novel The Paying Guests Sarah Waters draws us into the world of London in 1922, where Frances Wray lives a life of faded gentility with her widowed mother. Her father’s death has left the two women in financial difficulty, her brothers have both died in The Great War and domestic servants are but a distant memory. Property rich but cash poor, it seems the women’s only solution is to take in paying guests.

The Barbers arrive in a flurry of excitement and colour, restyling their rooms with an assortment of ‘bits and bobs’. The dull and familiar house on Champion Hill is transformed by Lil’s vivid shawls and silk slippers and the throbbing beat of a gramophone, by Len’s cigarettes and barely-concealed innuendos. They are of the ‘clerk class’, young and aspirational, but their elocution-accents betray their working-class origins.

Inevitably there are the initial embarrassments of living at close quarters with total strangers. Frances, despite her higher social status, scrubs the hall floor and lights the fires. Meanwhile Lil takes a leisurely bath mid-morning in a household more used to economising on hot water. Discreet envelopes conceal the rent which Frances counts out in private, with considerable relief. Despite these awkward moments the Barbers settle in and a tentative friendship develops between the two women.

In the unravelling of their separate histories and intertwined lives, Waters introduces a wider cast of characters; friends with whom Frances might have shared her life had circumstances been different, Lil’s lively and exuberant family, Mrs Wray’s conservative neighbours and bridge companions. There is a world outside the confines of the tired and shabby house. The occasional glimpses of life around the park and skating rink and inside London flats and crowded terraces emphasise the social conventions that define life on Champion Hill.

However, this being a Sarah Waters novel, so we know that social conventions will be challenged, and that the relationship between Frances and Lil isn’t going to remain simple. And it is a murder story, so we also know to expect violence, a police enquiry, smoke and mirrors. We are not disappointed.

Sarah Waters has clearly done her research. Her flawed characters are complex and interesting, 1920s suburban London is sympathetically evoked and attitudes on both sides of the social divide are convincing. We feel as though we’re in a safe pair of hands and The Paying Guests could just be a polished study of social attitudes in a community on the cusp of change. But it’s more than that. It’s a fascinating tale of obsession and forbidden love, with a plot which becomes increasingly tangled until we reach its tense conclusion. Most importantly, it’s a great story and an absorbing read.

For more information about Sarah Waters, and her books, visit her website

Find Virago Press on Facebook, follow them on Twitter @ViragoBooks


  1. Lovely review Angi, you make it sound so tempting! Karen

  2. What a lovely review, Angi. My thanks to Anne for arranging and hosting this review. I've never read any of her novels and it's very nice to hear what my good friends think of it.