Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests
by Sarah Waters

Publication date: 4th June 2015
Publisher: Virago
Pages: 599


‘There came the splash of water and the rub of heels as Mrs Barber stepped into the tub. After that there was a silence, broken only by the occasional echoey plink of drips from the tap…

‘Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, was what it really meant to have paying guests: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door. An image sprang into her head: that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat.’

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

This is vintage Sarah Waters: beautifully described with excruciating tension, real tenderness, believable characters, and surprises. It is above all a wonderful, compelling story.

Source: Goodreads


I’d been avoiding reading this book because of its size; its 600 pages looked a little overwhelming on my bookshelf. But I finally bit the bullet and now I’m annoyed I didn’t do it sooner because I have fallen in love with Sarah Waters‘ writing style and storytelling ability and will soon be seeking out her other books.

Set just after WW1, Waters tells the story of Frances Wray and her mother living in South London at a time of uncertainty for those the war left behind. Frances is doing her best to adjust to post-war London, having lost her two brothers and her father as a result. She is unmarried and still lives with her mother in their large family home but they have found themselves in a different situation socially and financially than before. This leads to having to rent out part of their property in order to pay their bills and in the opening chapter, we welcome lodgers Mr and Mrs Barber, elegantly named “The Paying Guests”. Young, modern and different to what they know, Frances and her mother are uncomfortable with the concept at first, but try their best to carry on and keep up appearances.

As the Barbers settle in, the Wrays begin to adjust to their new housemates and over time the boundaries between private and public spaces begin to merge as relationships are formed. There is tension, there are awkward situations and there is a whole load of drama.  Any further explanation of the plot will completely ruin this page turner and its carefully constructed narrative. Deeply romantic, morally complicated, full of twists and turns, I was completely gripped and wish I could say more.

Waters is a great storyteller, every character was rich and well developed, they felt real. You could truly feel the love, the guilt, the opinions and the nature of them all.  This is a book about details, building up clear images of the places, their atmosphere and people within them. It’s observational and it’s meandering but it’s necessary.

The only thing I would criticize would be the chapter length. Chapters went on and on before coming to an end. I was reading one of the chapters for more than an hour and a half! However the only problem this causes is having to stop in the middle of it all, making you want to get back to it as soon as possible.

Overall rating: This one is difficult to review without saying too much but it’s full of suspense, anticipation and has an atmosphere I felt immersed in. I loved this psychological thriller and will be scoring “The Paying Guests” 5 stars.

See my other reviews of books by Sarah Waters here:

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