Estate, morals crumble in postwar winner
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.