Outstay welcome

Outstay welcome

Sarah Waters is known for her period dramas and especially for those set in London. In her latest book, The Paying Guests, she paints a grim picture of the post-World War I London.

The novel is set in the early 1920s when the war has just ended and has left most Londoners with bitter experiences and memories. Ex-servicemen aimlessly roam the streets and rob for livelihood, the once upper crust are bereft of their shine, and most households, having lost their men in the war, have plunged into gloom and anguish.

Frances Wray is still a spinster at 28 and lives with her mother in their palatial but almost decrepit house. Her life has been anything but easy — her brothers are killed in the war and father has succumbed to illness. But she is determined not to let the hardships of life get to her and keeps her spirits up with whatever meagre entertainment she can manage with her  next-to-nothing income — a monthly visit to London simply to roam about, eat, spend time with her friend, catch a weekly cinema with her mother, and have a neat little roll of fag every night in the privacy of her bedroom.

Frances’s father’s philandering ways have left the mother and daughter in quite a financial crunch. Her bitterness for her father only grows with time instead of diminishing. “Well, Father, there you are, all spruce and tidy for your birthday. It’s more than you deserve, I’m sure.” This is what she mutters in front of his grave.

In order to avoid a complete financial collapse, Frances decides to give up a part of their house for rent. The Barbers, Lilian and Leonard, who move in to their house as paying guests, belong to what Frances brands in her mind as the less-classy Clerks.

From their loud music on the gramophone to their room decorated with flashy trinkets, Frances loathes their very presence and doubts her decision to rent the house to them. “What on earth had she done? She felt as though she was opening up the house to thieves and invaders. But there was nothing else for it, if the house were to be kept going at all.”

As time goes by, the simple lives of Frances and her mother are shattered by the Barbers in more ways than one. Frances is increasingly drawn to Lilian’s goodness and repulsed by Len’s crudeness, especially towards Lilian. A drunken night she spends with them only fuels her hatred towards him.

Just when you think it is a highly atmospheric domestic drama replete with period detail, Waters brings in her customary shock factor. Both the reader and Lilian are lulled to silence with Frances’s abrupt declaration of her lesbian leanings. As Lilian innocently styles Frances’s hair for a party they have to attend, Frances chooses to tell all, “I did have a kind of love affair a few years ago. But it was ... it was with a girl. I’d like to be able to say it was terribly pure and innocent — well, it wasn’t.”

Soon, the novel starts moving at breakneck speed, with Lilian and Frances in an exotic relationship, and a murder thrown in. You will want to play spoilsport at this point and take a peek at the last few pages to see how it all ends. If you resist the temptation, you are in for a great ride.

A word of caution to those who haven’t read Sarah Waters before — there are vivid descriptions of the sexual relationship between Frances and Lilian that can make one squirm. The author throws a few suggestive bits before she dives full on into lit-erotica for a good 100 pages. Quoting NPR, “Forget about Fifty Shades of Grey; this novel is one of the most sensual you will ever read, and all without sacrificing either good taste or a ‘G’ rating.”

If you are familiar with Waters’s works, you know that she is merely setting you up for something unpredictable. And it is no different here either. The Paying Guests, a novel that starts as a period drama and an unusual love story, turns into an unputdownable crime thriller a little over half way through.

Sarah Waters is one of the finest writers we have today. Her writing is deceptively simple, but when you pay attention, she amazes you with her skill. You will often catch yourself reading sentences slowly to absorb the sheer brilliance of Waters’s writing.

You will invariably reread at least some paragraphs for the author’s extraordinary writing and little philosophical tidbits. “Things — they oughtn’t always be modern. There’d be no character if they were” — a case in point.

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