Sarah Waters’ latest novel begins with a familiar framework: Strangers enter an ordinary, slightly dull life — and shatter it. But such a simple description doesn’t do justice to the erotically charged thriller The Paying Guests, a book that wrings you into such a state of agitation that the temptation to peek ahead to see how things turn out is almost overwhelming.
Don’t give in. The pleasures of this sublime romantic melodrama, set in 1922, also lie in its steadily enthralling pace and exquisite period detail, its devastating portrayal of an economically and emotionally battered England after World War I and its vibrant protagonist Frances Wray, a young woman who lives with her mother in their once-grand but now rapidly decaying family home.
Mr. Wray’s death and poor investments have led Frances and her mother to an unhappy state of affairs: To avoid financial ruin, they must take in boarders. So Frances has doggedly converted the upper floors, which leaves the house in a state of confusion: “Her mother’s bits of bedroom furniture seemed to her to be sitting as tensely as unhappy visitors.”
Life has been hard for Frances: Both of her brothers were killed in the war, and she slogs through the laborious chores that once belonged to the servants they can’t afford anymore. But she isn’t one to waste time mooning. She has lost an opportunity to live a wholly different sort of life with her first real love, but she survives on “[l]ittle pleasures like this. Little successes in the kitchen. The cigarette at the end of the day. Cinema with her mother on a Wednesday.”
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But when a young and hopelessly middle-class couple, the Barbers, arrive at the well-heeled address to rent some of the upstairs rooms, Frances’ life takes a radically different turn. She strikes up a friendship with Mrs. Barber, whose domestic decorating tastes astound and horrify. So cheap. So middle class. So unlike anything the Wrays have ever seen.
“[L]urid touches were everywhere, she saw with dismay. It was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick.” Fake Persian rugs and Indian shawls abound. Worse, there’s a print of a nude on the wall and a wicker birdcage hanging from a ribbon.
But slowly Frances finds herself drawn to Mrs. Barber — Lilian, her name is Lilian — and soon passion and desperation lead to disastrous consequences.
The Paying Guests is Waters’ first book since her 1940s ghost story The Little Stranger, which made the Man Booker shortlist (as did The Night Watch, her 2006 novel set in 1940s London, and Fingersmith, her elaborate, tricky Victorian crime masterpiece from 2002). Though its structure is more straightforward, The Paying Guests shares Fingersmith’s inexorable narrative velocity and erotic power. There is a murder, and there is a trial, and the deliberate buildup to both will fray your nerves and rattle your expectations. Waters expertly evokes doomed love, terror and regret as she examines just how far we’ll go for a chance at happiness.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.