It is 1922, and England and her citizens are still recovering from the upheaval of the First World War: High unemployment, disillusioned ex-soldiers and severely strained circumstances are commonplace. Twenty-seven-year-old Frances Wray and her mother are living in South London. Both of Frances’ brothers died in the war, and her father’s recent death left the two women close to financial ruin. Even with the dismissal of servants and Frances taking over the housework and meals, the Wrays no longer have enough to live on. Their decision to take in lodgers, or “paying guests” as they genteelly refer to them, leads to an event as ultimately life-altering as the war itself.
The Wrays’ lodgers are a young married couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber. The lack of privacy and the added noise prove troublesome, but Frances, who is cut off from people her own age, puts up with Leonard’s overly familiar conversation and is drawn to Lily’s artistic nature and seductive good looks. The budding friendship between the two women deepens, and when Frances confesses her sexual attraction to women, Lily is intrigued and reciprocates. Their affair reveals the cracks in the Barbers’ marriage as well as the depths of Frances’ loneliness. When a marital argument leads to a fatal accident, the novel swiftly transforms from a romance about forbidden love to a fast-paced courtroom drama, and Frances finds herself in the middle of an ethical dilemma that casts a deep shadow on her relationship with Lily.
Fans of Sarah Waters’ previous novels (Fingersmith, The Little Stranger) know that she is a gifted storyteller with a way of bringing historical eras to life. She is sensitive to the telling details of character and class. Some of the strongest sections of The Paying Guests depict Frances’ discomfort as she navigates uneasily between her mother’s expectations and those of the Barbers; as bold as she may be in her desires, she is easily discomfited by the middle-class lodgings and speech of Lily’s mother and sisters. In addition, the hidden nature of the women’s relationship proves a double-edged sword—though Frances wishes she could proclaim her love out loud, she also knows that its very invisibility keeps her safe. With the swiftly shifting mores of postwar British society as a backdrop, Waters once again provides a singular novel of psychological tension, emotional depth and historical detail.