Sarah Waters - The Paying Guests (4 stars)

*4sarah Waters

Sarah Waters / Charlie Hopkinson

An absorbing read, rich in period detail and complex characters


Four years after she was nominated for the Booker Prize with The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters has returned with her sixth novel, The Paying Guests. In a shabby but still genteel London suburb just after World War I, Frances Wray and her mother are forced to take in lodgers to survive, but neither of them can imagine the way Lilian and Leonard Barber will uproot their lives. Frances, trying to content herself with the bourgeois beige world she chose over an independent life with her former lover Christina, is reluctantly intrigued by the colourful Lilian.

Whereas Waters' earlier novels were a mad swirl of Dickens, Wilkie Collins and the Brontës, here she draws inspiration from queer female novelists of the early 20th century, most clearly Radclyffe Hall, author of the notorious lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, with maybe a dash of Du Maurier and Woolf. In fact, it's easy to get so caught up in this quiet tale of suburban sapphic passion that you forget who's masterminding it. Waters is at her best when she sends the plot on dizzying twists, and what seems at first to be a novel about repressed desire soon spirals madly into murder, adultery and betrayal. 

For readers who enjoyed the Victorian melodrama of her early work, The Paying Guests might seem staid at first but, while it doesn't equal her truly brilliant The Little Stranger, it is an absorbing read, rich in period detail and complex characters. The final third of the novel rattles by, towards an ending that seems predictably foreshadowed – but where Sarah Waters is concerned, nothing is ever that simple. 

Published by Virago.

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