Pages torn out of the trashy tabloids
Attempting to discuss Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests presents a problem: Quite a lot happens in this story — including nearly every kind of human behaviour that’s ever made the front page of a trashy tabloid. It’s marvellous — hot and tender and terrible — but difficult to keep mum about.
The novel’s principal characters — Mr. and Mrs. Barber, newly of the “clerk class” and the ladies Wray, a widow and her near-spinster daughter — represent an array of class positions among them. The characters all befit and betray their stations by turns, something you might expect from Waters.
In this story set just after The Great War, the Wrays are forced to take in the eponymous paying guests (what a lower class of per- son, the reader is told, would call “lodgers”) in order to keep possession of their genteel home on Champion Hill, south of London. The Barbers move in on a rare sunny Sunday afternoon, with their things all tossed out of a van and onto the front walk. We feel the clutch of horror as the Wray women find their solution exposed to the neighbours and their house no longer their own. Hijinks, as they say, ensue.
Waters is a skilled storyteller. The book begins slowly, but gets rolling downhill (but never quite manages to careen out of control).
So many things happen, and Waters writes about them in such emotional detail, that it’s easy to get caught up in them as one might the dramas of a friend. The plot is full of events, but somehow it doesn’t distract from Waters’ other specialty: writing about desire.
Everyone in The Paying Guests is a wanting machine. Characters go about trying to fulfil both their lawful and illicit desires, while also concealing from at least one person just what they might be.
Because the plot is so absorbing, and the turns so delicious, it seeps in slowly how much attention each of these people pays to their desire and how these wants reveal everything.
By the end, the Barbers and the Wrays are known to the reader more through their desires than anything else.
But rest assured this is a novel to devour and enjoy.
The Paying Guests Sarah Waters McClelland & Stewart