Sarah Waters seems to revel in 19th and 20th century British history as a dolphin does in water: Her literary depictions of domestic life, manners, architecture, class structure, the weight of war and the volatility of love all appear as effortless as they are beautifully executed.
Her novels “Tipping the Velvet,” “Affinity” and “Fingersmith” featured Victorian London as backdrop; “The Night Watch” leaped forward to England during the Blitz of World War II. All delved into lesbian relationships and female friendships, with complex yet sympathetic characters as memorable as any in recent fiction. Her previous book, “The Little Stranger,” was the first to feature a male protagonist, in a dazzling, Jamesian ghost story set in a decaying country house in the years after WWII, when England’s class structure was being demolished along with the vast estates its upper caste could no longer afford to maintain.
Waters’ newest work moves back in time to the years after the first world war, where she masterfully weaves true crime, domestic life and romantic passion into one of the best novels of suspense since Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca.”
“The Paying Guests” opens one Sunday afternoon in 1922, with a melancholy if mundane event: 27-year-old Frances Wray and her mother awaiting the eponymous paying guests, Lilian and Leonard Barber, who two weeks earlier answered the Wrays’ advertisement in the South London Press for rooms to let.
Brash twentysomethings from Peckham Rye, the Barbers arrive bearing two weeks’ rent — 28 shillings — along with less welcome reminders of the Wrays’ unhappily straitened circumstances. Frances’ two brothers were killed in the war. Two years after their deaths, her father died, and the posthumous revelation of his bad investments reduced the Wrays’ upper-middle-class lifestyle to penury. Gone are the live-in servants, whose room has become the kitchen; Frances now sleeps in the former dining room (along with some of the dining room furniture), with her mother across the hall.
Gone too is any semblance of privacy. The WC is in the backyard, accessed only through the Wrays’ kitchen. The faded elegance of Mrs. Wray’s bedroom disappears beneath cheap mass-produced rugs and shawls and pre-Raphaelite prints, a wicker bird cage that contains a fake parrot on a papier-mâché perch. Mr. Barber picks his teeth with a matchstick. Pretty Mrs. Barber favors makeup, shingled hair and scandalously short skirts that expose fancy silk stockings. Frances finds herself “as conscious of their foreign presence as she might have been of a speck in the corner of her eye.”
Yet the dramatic changes in her fortune allow unexpected pleasures to enter Frances’ life. To her mother’s dismay, Frances finds that she enjoys “landladying,” and she takes pride in the physical labor — varnishing wallpaper, staining floors — involved in readying the house for tenants. Even more, she delights in the Barbers’ rent money: “She parted the gum of the envelope and — oh, there it all was, so real, so present, so hers, she felt she could dip her mouth to it and kiss it.”
The sly eroticism of Frances’ reaction is a neat foreshadowing. Because, as the weeks pass, she and Mrs. Barber — Lilian — gradually become friends, and then after a sexually charged evening at a party with Lilian’s friends, lovers. In one of the many clever twists in Waters’ diabolically clever tale, we learn that the demure, seemingly diffident Frances has had other female lovers — lots of them. Her matter-of-fact acknowledgment is another of the book’s delights, along with one of the hottest sex scenes ever to be set in a scullery.
“The Paying Guests” unfolds in a deceptively languid fashion, but its meticulous descriptions and period details are neither arbitrary nor superfluous. Instead, they subtly illustrate how horribly constrained women’s lives could be, in an era many associate with flappers and Bright Young Things whizzing from one country house weekend to the next.
World War I inescapably overshadows this world, from the Wrays’ genteel poverty, to the bigotry and suspicion that accompany the economic rise of formerly working-class people like the Barbers, with “their ‘refined,’ elocution-class accents,” to the resentment of veterans who return home to find their jobs gone or, worse, occupied by women.
Waters sets her narrative trap carefully, and when she springs it, more than 300 pages in, “The Paying Guests” shifts into high gear as smoothly and relentlessly as a Vauxhall touring car overtaking a horse and carriage. As in “Rebecca,” there’s a crime of passion, but instead of a low-key inquest conducted by a sympathetic magistrate, there’s a court case with all the tabloid furor of the Amanda Knox trial — Waters’ novel was inspired in part by several real life crimes of the period. The novel’s last few hundred pages race past to reach a climax of nail-biting suspense, followed by a moving and delicately wrought denouement.
“I pay attention to women’s history,” Waters said in a recent interview. “To their secret history and lives.” “The Paying Guests” illuminates these lives brilliantly and unforgettably.
Hand’s most recent book is the collection “Errantry: Strange Stories.”
The Paying Guests
Riverhead: 566 pp., $28.95