Es­tate, morals crum­ble in post­war win­ner

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ch­eryl Gi­rard

IT is 1922 in a gen­teel neigh­bour­hood of London, Eng­land, an Eng­land still reel­ing from the dev­as­tat­ing af­ter­math of the First World War. Bat­tle-weary sol­diers scram­ble to find work, only to find that more and more women have en­tered the work­force. Fam­i­lies ev­ery­where try to cope emotionally and fi­nan­cially with the tragic loss of their fa­thers, hus­bands and sons. It’s in this set­ting we meet Frances Wray, con­sid­ered a spin­ster at 26, and her mother, still griev­ing over the loss of her hus­band and two sons. They find them­selves alone and strug­gling to main­tain a large, stately es­tate on Cham­pion Hill. As the class sys­tem crumbles about them, much like the ag­ing es­tate they cling to, the pair find they must take in lodgers — or “pay­ing guests,” as they pre­fer to call them — in or­der to sur­vive. And so a young mar­ried cou­ple of the “clerk class,” the Bar­bers, ar­rive to rent out rooms and the stage is lit. This is London-based Sarah Wa­ters’s sixth novel; three of her pre­vi­ous nov­els have been short­listed for the Man Booker Prize. Both his­tor­i­cal fic­tion and a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, The Pay­ing Guests brings to mind the dark and omi­nous at­mos­phere of Daphne Du Mau­rier’s Re­becca. Shades of Charles Dick­ens, one of Wa­ters’s many lit­er­ary in­flu­ences, crop up of­ten in her de­scrip­tions of the char­ac­ters and in her por­trayal of the class di­vi­sions that rule them. The Wrays see them­selves as a su­pe­rior sort of class, while the Bar­bers are seen as hav­ing filled their home with “nasty,” “lurid touches.” When Mrs. Bar­ber’s fam­ily vis­its, Mrs. Wray sug­gests, “Per­haps one of us ought to go out to the kitchen and count the spoons.” Even Frances at one point thinks, “Well, that was the clerk class for you. They might be com­pletely with­out cul­ture, but they cer­tainly know how to make them­selves com­fort­able...” The Wrays can no longer af­ford ser­vants and so Frances takes it upon her­self to clean, scrub, cook and man­age the huge house, much to her mother’s dis­may. De­ter­mined to keep up ap­pear­ances, the el­derly Wray is loath to hav­ing the neigh­bours see her daugh­ter, “a well bred woman do­ing the work of a char.” De­spite their dif­fer­ences, Frances is almost im­me­di­ately at­tracted to the colour­ful work­ing-class Mrs. Bar­ber. She is re­pelled by Mr. Bar­ber, who spends much of his time hap­pily mock­ing both Frances and his wife. Mrs. Bar­ber is un­hap­pily mar­ried, and the at­trac­tion Frances feels leads to an adul­ter­ous af­fair be­tween the two women. One thing leads to another and soon sev­eral hor­ri­ble crimes are com­mit­ted. The fi­nal sec­tion deals with the in­evitable con­se­quences of the acts of crime and the moral dilemma the char­ac­ters be­come en­tan­gled in as guilt, shame, lies and sus­pi­cious thoughts over­whelm them. Here es­pe­cially, Wa­ters’s prose is clear and un­em­bel­lished. Along with crisp di­a­logue the sen­tences pro­pel the story for­ward and the story seems to flow ef­fort­lessly. Wa­ters has a mar­vel­lous eye for pe­riod de­tail and a tal­ent for evok­ing a mem­o­rable at­mos­phere. Images of the old house in south London, of the sur­round­ing streets and the trou­bled long-gone post­war years linger long after the last page has been turned. The char­ac­ters may seem a lit­tle ex­treme or lop­sided, how­ever. Though a strong and in­de­pen­dent character, Frances also comes across as some­what cold, hard and posses­sive, although she is prob­a­bly meant to have been seen sym­pa­thet­i­cally. Once the guests have moved in, Frances be­comes creep­ily con­scious of ev­ery foot­step, sound and move­ment they make. She sees Mr. Bar­ber “sim­ply as some tire­some, neglible thing that was keep­ing her from Lil­ian...” The kind, fem­i­nine Mrs. Bar­ber seems tilted in the other di­rec­tion, com­ing off as pas­sive and help­less. Mr. Bar­ber is sim­ply de­spi­ca­ble, with no ap­par­ent re­deem­ing qual­i­ties. All in all, ten­sion and plot move the story for­ward, and Wa­ters’s skil­ful mas­tery of de­tail and at­mos­phere brings the sus­pense­ful tale to life.

Ch­eryl Gi­rard is a Win­nipeg writer.

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