Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Oh. I wanted to love this book like I've loved the the other Waters books I've read and, like, Affinity was so magical and I...

Calm down, Alys, take it slowly.

Set in the interwar years, The Paying Guests is a "love story that is also a crime story", and follows the relationships that develop between Francis Wray - a gentlewoman of slender means forced to rent rooms in her house - and Mr and Mrs Barber - the eponymous "Paying Guests". This being a Waters novel, we can guess in what way these relationships develop.

And that aspect of it is handled wonderfully. For, of course, Miss Wray is not the prim, downtrodden spinster her current life seems to refelct. Instead, in the aftermath of the Great War, she is in a fugue state, mourning the loss of her two brothers and her relationship with another woman which family circumstances - or perhaps a failure of courage - caused her to abandon. While something of a slow burner, the first half of the book is an eloquent and moving examination of the pains and perils of clandestine love and the possiblity of honesty as permitted by the period.

I was especially taken with the gut-punching accuracy with which Waters describes the awkward, charged physicality of the the closeted queer body when faced with homosocial relationships. In simpler words - straight women get to touch each other without there being a sexual subtext. The same does not apply when you aren't straight and aren't out about it, and, oh my word, that haircut scene could have sprung from my adolescence. Good, character driven fiction gives us insight into ourselves and those around us - and Waters is enormously skilled in that regard.

It is in the middle section of the book, with the shift from romance to crime, that the novel suffers. The crime scenes themselves (no spoliers!) are wonderfully done, but the characters' emotional reactions don't quite satisfy. I've seen Waters in interview saying she did not want her protagonists to "shrug off" the crime aspect, but this has made the novel very introspective, and caused the already leisurely pace to slow further. The final third - where it becomes a full courtroom drama -  is a again a moving and engaging read, but I did nearly abandon it in the middle bit. Personally, I feel the book would have been better had the three strands been more throroughly intergrated.

What was more, the character of Lilian Barber felt like something of cypher - a place marker for a "man's woman"/"love interest", who was permitted little more interiority than such a character would have in a comparable heterosexual novel. You know, the kind that wouldn't pass the Bechdel Test. This was frustrating as Waters' characters are usually so well realised and comprehensible - even the mysterious ones.

For all that, The Paying Guests is an intelligent, ambitious novel with an engaging, uncomfortable set of characters. It doesn't have the intensity I associate with her other works, and the claustrophobic, '20s set up leads to a slow pace and a slightly unsatisfactory element of psychological drama, but it is unquestionably accomplished and well worth a read.

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