I thoroughly enjoyed The Paying Guests, which was a relief as the last book I read was DIRE.
I’d never read any Sarah Waters before, and knew her mainly as the writer of “lesbian bodice-ripper”,* Tipping the Velvet. Using the same terms, I’d describe The Paying Guests as a “lesbian thriller”, though that makes it sound like terrible, erotic, genre fiction, which it is isn’t. “Literary lesbian thriller” is a better description, but it still sounds like a dismissal, like it’s a type of novel that shouldn’t be taken seriously. To do that, though, would be an error, because The Paying Guests is great, and it is literary, it is thrilling and it is [insert adjectivised word for lesbian here]**.
The novel is set in the aftermath of the First World War, when a well-to-do family are financially required to take in a pair of married lodgers (“paying guests”, as they are euphemistically called) after the death of all the men. Two sons died in the war (which hangs heavy over the whole novel), while the father died soon afterwards due to the emotional strain of his grief combined with the fact that he’d managed to lose all of the family’s money. There is left an aged, traditionalist, mother, and a daughter, who is unmarried and had a colourful past amongst pacifists and bohemians during the war. Life, for Frances, has been diminished ever since the armistice.
To begin with, there is a lot of comedy that comes from the culture class between Frances’ mother and the lodgers, who are from the dreaded “clerk class”. They fill their rooms with tawdry décor, including a tambourine and a hideous, giant ashtray. The husband works in insurance, but is doing well and spends a lot of late nights at the office. His wife, Lilian, lounges about at home, being beautiful and, we quickly realise, unhappy. Thus the novel proper begins, when Frances and Lilian become friends and then, quite naturally, quite believably, lovers.
I haven’t read a novel in a while that even attempts to describe the beginning of a relationship, it seems far more usual for literature*** to be about the falling apart of a relationship. Love, desire, whatever, are ideas literary novelists rail against. It must always be tragic when it is true, or, more frequently, deeply corrupt from the off. The burgeoning relationship between Frances and Lilian, however, is written with nuance and excitement. Even though Lilian is married, she is clearly neglected and unfulfilled. Even though their homosexual romance is intrinsically problematic in the society the novel is set in, it is not to any normal modern reader. Their relationship grows and develops pleasantly – it is relaxed and exploratory, passionate and respectful. It is a relationship that makes both happy when they are together, but obviously cannot organically develop past a certain point.
Then, a bit of action happens, and the novel lifts off. [Pause as I consider the next sentence.]
Fuck it, it only happens halfway through and I bet it’s on the blurb: What happens is that Lilian murders her husband, and Frances helps her cover it up. The second half of the novel then becomes a brilliant, Patricia Highsmith-like psychological thriller, as Frances fears for her freedom, her relationship, her mother, her life, and also the fates of any incorrectly arrested suspects. There is a lot about class here, too – Frances spends time amongst the families of her lodgers, and is viewed as out of place. The reader fears Frances’ arrest, and is pleasingly frustrated by Frances’ oscillating feelings about whether or not to approach the police.
The narrator sticks to Frances throughout, it is third person but barely – we feel closely her desire, her fear, her regret, her sadness, her loneliness… We see her excitement as her relationship builds and we see her disappointment as it becomes increasingly fragile.
I couldn’t help worrying, though, several times, if the story would have been less engaging had the central adulterous relationship been heterosexual. The idea of a pair of lovers murdering an in-the-way husband is hardly unique, and I also doubt that the square location of the reader’s sympathy with Frances is novel.**** Is this plot only original in mainstream literary fiction because of the gender of its protagonists?
One could perhaps argue yes, but I would say no. Homosexuality doesn’t feel like a “gimmick” here, which is important. The Paying Guests feels like a fair and well-researched exploration of various social mores at a particular point in history. Aside from that, Waters perfectly evokes love, affection, desire. I trusted that Frances and Lilian’s affair had developed to a point where one would help the other to cover up a murder. I believed that their affection and desire would lead to a collision with Lilian’s husband that could only end badly. The detail of the legal proceedings in the second half, the discussion of social upheaval as a result of the recent war, of the growth of sensationalist journalism, of political activism – everything locks the engaging narrative in the time it is set, and The Paying Guests is an involving read because of it.
Sarah Waters’ novel is excellent – it charms with the romance of the first half, then excites with the thrills of the second. It’s well-written, descriptive and intelligent. I’d recommend it, and in future I will try to describe it without appending the word “lesbian”.
* I believe that was how it was marketed, even if it wasn’t how it self-identified.
** It’s sapphic, obviously, I’m not an idiot. I have two degrees.
*** Or the literature I read…
**** She is an accessory to murder, yes, but the reader is on her side: she is neither evil nor in the wrong.