Sarah Waters' 'The Paying Guests'

It's been a long time since I've done anything that I felt has really worked my brain since university, so when I was asked to be a part of  the Waterstones Book Club, I felt it was time, nearly two years later, to get back into the analysing mind frame. And one day, what with wanting my own book club of women where wine and nibbles are free flowing, where better than to get into practice with respected writer Sarah Waters new novel, The Paying Guest?

I will admit that I haven't ever read any of her books, although I had heard of Affinity during my GCSE's years ago. But I'd only read glowing reviews of her writing and was eager to find out more.

Her newest novel is set in the 1920's, a departure from her previous books set in either the nineteenth century or the 40's. Following a mother and daughter, bereaved by the war having lost brothers and her father, they end up needing lodgers to make ends meet which comes with the arrival of young married couple Lilian and Leonard Barber.


I'll admit, it starts pretty slowly. It eases you in with evocative images of the 1920's lifestyle, and the adjustments Frances, the daughter, feels having two strangers in the house. You learn that she doesn't sway to the normal expectations and has a feisty yet stifled personality: she isn't married, she supports her household and was known for throwing a shoe at an MP, something mirroring the Suffragette movement within the period. At points she gets annoyed at the restrictions still on her gender, questioning the ways men stifle women with views ahead of her times: 'things like voting, you mean? Standing for Parliament? No, I hadn't noticed at all'. However, she has been stuck looking after the house and life of her mother, not able to do the things she wants and is where discontentment bubbles up throughout the opening of the novel.

This first part definitely sets the scene and builds up to the relationship of Frances and Lillian, so whilst needed, felt they dragged slightly. However, when their romantic relationship has been established, and the twist comes, it is then that it speeds up and keeps you riveted for the rest of the story.

Part two brings the crime element to this novel, when, during an altercation when their relationship is revealed, Lillian murders her husband. The rest of the novel follows them hiding their crime, trying to keep their relationship alive and their guilt over how to deal with both of these issues. This is when it gets exciting and you genuinely fear that they will get caught at any moment. It's a true page-turner and your heart is in your throat, sure that something or someone will catch these two women out.

Yet it's hard to feel sorry for them: with Lillian's fear and guilt, and Frances anger at being dragged into you, I started to care less for them as characters as it moved along. Perhaps I just never warmed to them, or felt that Leonard, whilst not the nicest character, got an ending he didn't quite deserve. I even forgot that it was the 1920's, and, as The Guardian put so well, descended into 'soap opera'  like farce. So whilst gripping, it felt somewhat modern and common at places. And as their relationship teeters on destruction, you end up being torn with wanting them to make it through after the happiness they once had, and wanting them to stay apart after not being able to see each other in the same way.

You'll come out of the novel having really felt the characters developed a lot throughout, and don't leave as the same person they once were especially Lillian who changes from a quiet, naive woman to one dealing with being cheated on, widowed, murdering and starting a lesbian relationship. I won't give the ending away, however I will say that the book felt very much a crime novel with a tortured romance interwoven, as opposed to the other way around. So if you love a period drama, a thrilling page turner with elements of 20's glamour, then it's the book for you. But with nearly 600 pages, be sure to get a cup of tea and settle down for a long evening.

You can also read Alice's review at Of Books