There is so much to admire about this book that I feel almost guilty that I didn’t love it. And I feel I might struggle to explain why without losing sight of the fact that it is a great book and beautifully written in places.
As you’d expect from Waters, The Paying Guests inhabits a very specific historical moment. In this case, she takes is to the social upheaval of the 1920s and the interbellum years. The aftermath of The Great War looms over the novel: a generation of men have been lost; soldiers returning have found themselves unemployed and unsupported; the division between the gentry and clerk classes are dissolving. Again, as you’d expect of Waters, the historical details are utterly convincing; her language never jars you from that period; her dialogue feels completely authentic. The voices of her characters and the way that their language is almost insufficient to reflect the depth of the emotions, passions and pain her characters feel is wonderfully evocative. It somehow recalls my grandmother.
Waters locates the writing in a traditional grand house in Champion Hill, London – a house used to a team of servants and a family of five before the war, but which now houses only our main character, Frances Wray, and her mother. Saddled with debts, the Wrays take in a married couple – Ken and Lillian Barber – as lodgers in order to maintain the cost of the house upkeep. The novel opens with the Barbers arrival and the tension created by that arrival: the hesitation over whether to offer or even drink tea with the Barbers on their arrival; the awkward maneuverings and negotiations between two families finding a space between cool civility, pragmatic commerce, resentment and an uncomfortable enforced intimacy.
And Waters is just as fabulous writing about emotions as she is in capturing a voice. Just read the following extract:
It is one of the most beautiful and natural analogies of the quickening of love that I have read. Domestic. Sensuous. Gorgeous. And the contrast between the narrator’s lyricism and the characters’ almost inarticulate and gauche attempts to communicate those feelings was exquisitely painful.
Locating the story firmly within the Champion Hill house also worked wonderfully. It became claustrophobic and enclosing… reflecting the limitations and restrictions imposed on the characters by society and morality and family. The house almost became a character in its own right and a reflection of Frances’ own psychological state.
It is the second half of the novel, however, that lost me a little. The novel shifts from the drama of Frances and Lillian’ love to a more plot driven crime thriller. The turning point is quite horrific to read but something gets lost.
I stopped liking either of the two characters.
Their inability to communicate, which in the first part of the novel, was endearing and overcome through their contact – her depictions of skin are beautiful – became frankly irritating. Their lack of agency</em, of control, became tedious. I'm sure that it was a realistic portrait of the lack of agency women had in the 1920s and the way the patriarchal machinery of society robbed women of exactly that self determinism.
However, as a novel, it alienated me.
I didn’t find their actions and reactions credible in the second half of the novel… even though I know that Waters is a writer for whom credibility and authenticity are paramount.
It is odd though that this is the second lesbian novel I’ve read in a row, following on from Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal . The comparison is interesting: where Catton’s novel is arch and self-aware and overtly literary, Waters is real and – I keep coming back to this word – authentic. Thinking about the two books together, and being fully aware of the subjectivity of this, it crystallises what it is in books that really grips me: it is the artfulness, the language games, the twisting of not just the plot but the very relationship I have – as reader – with the writer and his or her creations.