Wednesday, 2 November 2016

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

When I read my first Sarah Waters book, I was a little bemused - the reputation I'd heard was that she predominantly wrote about queer/lesbian characters in historical contexts, and although The Little Stranger had a historical context, any queer content was at very least heavily shrouded. I enjoyed it as a ghost story/character study, but was surprised that I'd managed to start off my acquaintanceship with Waters with that one. Now, on second encounter, I'm finally in the subject matter for which she's known.

We're not long after World War I, in the arena of genteel poverty, as Frances and her mother try to keep up their house in the wake of the death of her brothers and father, the latter of whom had impoverished them while keeping up appearances. They do so by taking in boarders, more delicately termed "paying guests." These are a young married couple, Lilian and Leonard, occupying space that no longer feels entirely the property of Frances or her mother.

I wasn't trying to do research, but in looking to refresh myself on character names, it wasn't a hard piece of information to stumble across that Waters was inspired by a few sensational interwar trials, most of which concerned murder tied up with a love triangle between a husband, wife, and wife's lover - she is building on those sensational stories with the emergence of a stronger lesbian subculture in the years leading up to and after the war to create a woman (Frances) who knows that she's attracted to women, and had hopes before the war of making a life with her female lover, but had that relationship fall apart in the wake of family responsibilities.

The other half of the romance, Lilian, does not appear to have fallen for a woman before, but she and Frances carry on an affair under the nose of Frances' mother and Lilian's husband, which eventually leads to them being surprised and a dead body in the apartment upstairs. They try for a cover up, in which they are abetted by the inability of the police to imagine anything other than heterosexual feelings, but also threatened by the looming cloud of what would happen to either or both of them if the truth did come out.

It's an interesting mix of sexual politics and the slow workings of the law, as someone is arrested wrongfully, and Frances and Lilian have to deal with their guilt over having, at least temporarily, gotten away from it. Their relationship is tested as they attend court together, unable to be close.

In a lot of ways, it's a bit of a thriller, but it worked for me. The time period is evoked nicely, and Waters has a deft touch with detail - it never feels like an info-dump, or as though she's trying to show off how well she researched the time period or the city as it was then. When details come up they are necessary and precise, but not overdone. Thus, she avoids one of the cardinal sins of the historical novel, and one that often gets under my skin.

Part of whether or not this book succeeds has to come down to how you feel about Frances and Lilian. I found that their predicament made me, at times, almost unbearably tense. Waters succeeds in turning the screws here, and it is easy to see how things could go more wrong than they already were.

I recommend this one to a lot of people. I'm not sure it's great literature, but it is definitely solid and literary and very, very tense.

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