The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

I actually bought this the day it came out. Then I discovered, like the review on Shiny New Books suggests, and as I found with Waters The Little Stranger, that I could only read it during the day. It is a brilliantly written, intense book, which is one of the few that really draws the reader in, but so much so that when the main character is depressed, I got depressed, or fearful, or whatever. I cannot work out how Waters achieves this effect. Maybe it is the detail of the domestic, the sense of the house almost being another character, but this book goes out of the house, into offices and other houses, which also take on the sense of being there. Not that she limits herself to a sense of place, as the characters in all their faults and speeches also become real.

Waters creates the sense of invasion by the paying guests, Lillian and Len, who move into the house which Frances and her mother have struggled to keep going since the death of both sons and husband. The brothers are mourned as many young men, as being killed at the Front during the First World War, whereas Mr. Wray senior was a spendthrift and buyer of fake antiques. Frances is a sad young woman, who regrets that she gave up her relationship with Christine in order to stay with her mother and keep up the family home, and her life has become dominated by the need to keep it clean, to follow the tracks of an unmarried daughter. The arrival of the beautiful Lillian, unsuited to her husband who works in an Insurance Office, challenges and changes the colourless house, with noise and sheer presence. Leonard is an invasive force, who walks through the kitchen, starts conversations, creates trouble in well behaved way.

The plot of the book means that it needs to be read to understand. The context of affection, even love, of anger, of fear, of despair, as well as emerging feelings for other characters, can only be understood in the context of slow reading. I think that this book needs time, and that is one of its main strengths, and perhaps it should be thought of as a big book like Wolf Hall. I enjoyed reading it; it is a strong, intense book, and I think it worked well throughout as it built to a climax which I thought was satisfying. It is a book which rewards concentration rather than half asleep reading. Waters is an incredible writer, and I have got so much from each book; a sense of history, people in difficult circumstances, the vulnerability of women in society. If you set out to read this, allow time and emotional energy.

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