Book Review: Genteel Frances Wray and her mother have fallen on hard times, so they let out their unused rooms to paying guests: a brash, working class couple called Lil and Len. Although humiliating, this arrangement should be the answer to their financial worries. Instead they become entangled in a web of passion, violence, deceit and fear, which threatens to destroy them all.
The shadow of the first world war hangs heavily over their lives. Not just the terrible human cost, but the way in which it irreversibly changed the relationship between classes, generations and genders.
Frances scorns marriage and longs for the freedom that she glimpses in this new post-war world. And yet her loyalty to her mother, who has lost two sons in the war, prevents her from leaving to fulfill her own dreams. By her mid twenties, Frances is resigned to a lonely future of struggling to make ends meet, household drudgery and nightly card games with her mother. Then she meets Lil.
The question of whom or what can be trusted becomes central to this novel as Frances and Lil’s secret romance blossoms and even more so once they become unwilling partners in crime. The book is so compelling because, as a reader, you cannot relax or let down your guard: the risk of betrayal and discovery is always there, just as it is for Frances herself, to the point where she struggles even to trust herself.
The novel is strongest when it uses small details to reveal character or evoke an atmosphere. The looks, accidental touches and half-spoken words between Frances and Lil are far more erotic than the eventual sex scenes. A brief description of Frances hands swollen and ruined by scrubbing floors, speaks more clearly about how she is trapped in middle class poverty than any amount of social comment.
The big set pieces – in particular the courtroom scenes – are also beautifully crafted, unbearably ramping up the tension so that you are desperate to skip to the end of the chapter. But it was the small details that haunted me once I’d finished the book.
Sarah Waters is known for her Gothic imagination, twisting tales and lesbian protagonists. Although ‘The Paying Guests’ may not be as dark or as shocking as some of her earlier work, it’s an absorbing and nerve-wracking read. And those on the look out for lesbians in these pages won’t be disappointed either.
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