Sarah Waters – “The Paying Guests”

The Paying GuestsI found this book (and writer) through listening to Michael Silverblatt’s terrific podcast, Bookworm (KCRW). I read The Paying Guests as an audiobook (a delectable narration by Juliet Stevenson) on a long trip and the drive went quickly, although there was still plenty of novel left to devour after the trip was over. It’s a long one.

The Paying Guests pulled me along by that distinctive psychological undertow that I think of as Patricia Highsmith-esque. I wasn’t surprised to find, after doing a bit of poking around online, that Waters cites Highsmith as one of her favorite writers.

Highsmith puts a reader in a character’s skin like few others. Waters is every bit her match. The writing is tactile, visceral, gritty, sensual (all six senses). The plot is simple: a widowed mother and her daughter take on a young couple as borders in post-World War I London. The story is told by Frances, the daughter. The mother-daughter couple are giving up her mother’s bedroom to Leonard and Lillian Barber to boost the household income. The war has taken its toll on those who survive, too. Frances and her mother live in Champion Hill, a couple miles from the “glamour” of London but thank god not “grubby” Camberwell, either. Class plays a big role in the entire story.

The closeness of a married couple living side-by-side, floor-over-floor with the mother-daughter couple is palpable. Sounds, utterances, new rhythms, new strains. The first two hundred pages explore their mutual awkwardness and discomfort—and attempts to get along as well. There’s a haircut, a picnic, odd moments, lurching, concealing, dodging. Waters slowly peels back Frances’ story and we soon realize that Frances yearns for Lillian and that Frances’ mother is very well aware of her daughter’s preferences—and intends to keep her in check (or try).

And then, of course, the suspense-mystery. The trope is that mysteries require the dead body to appear in the first few pages or maybe the first chapter (depends on who is teaching your class in clichés) but in The Paying Guests it’s as if a historical novel morphs into a romance and then a straight-up suspense thriller with inspectors and barristers and witnesses and again, like Highsmith, we are in the mind of the perpetrator and see the actions of her co-conspirator, to the extend we can. The mystery elements don’t really kick in until about half way through this hefty ride, but all three parts hang together. There’s a seamless flow to the emotions and the details, with Waters in complete control as we watch Frances and the escalating anguish. And terror.

The Paying Guests is a mash-up—and Waters concedes that point. In the same interview where she acknowledged her debt to Highsmith (The Boswellians, a blog from a fabulous independent bookstore in Milwaukee) Waters said she took the approach on purpose: “One thing that struck me about the period was what a mish-mash of voices it was. The 1940s, for example, has always seemed to me to have a very distinctive idiom; but the ’20s was much more diverse. So I just read all sorts of literature from the period—novels, plays, poetry, letters, diaries; highbrow, middlebrow and potboilers—and let all seep in.”

It seeps in all right – right under your skin.