JUST AFTER World War I, in London, Frances Wray and her mother are living alone in a large and declining family home, located in an upper-middle-class neighborhood called Champion Hill. We see the story exclusively through Frances’ eyes. Both she and her mother are in mourning. Two brothers have been lost to the war, and her father, who had heart problems, has died of a stroke. Upon her father’s death, Frances learned that he’d squandered the family’s money. So without funds, she’s been left alone to keep up the house, care for her aging mother, and pay the bills. The city of London is dark and scarred, as are some of its inhabitants. The Wray house sits amid the well-kept older estates. At the beginning of the novel, Frances and her mother have fallen into debt, which is why the house is filled with paying guests. Frances’ brothers’ rooms on the second floor have been turned into a sitting room and a bedroom. A small room at the back of the house, formerly occupied by two maids, now serves as a kitchen. The book begins on the day that Mr. and Mrs. Barber, twenty-somethings of the “clerk class,” move in.
Author Sarah Waters slowly and meticulously develops each character. In the first hundred pages, Frances’ routine is disrupted by the Barbers, and she feels a lack of privacy. We’re given hints as to Frances’ true nature, but it’s not until the second hundred pages that we learn the truth. It turns out a failed relationship that Frances has mentioned early on was with another woman. As Frances has had previous experience, she knows how that information was received by her family. She and Lilian Barber struggle through some initial awkwardness and then become friends. Frances’ mother watches for hints of that previous fall from grace as Frances and Lilian’s friendship becomes closer and closer. At one point Frances contemplates her mother, whose lot includes a dead husband, a failed fortune, two lost sons, and an unmarriageable daughter. Her spinster daughter resents the woman with so much tragedy, a mother who can’t manage to keep house or cook for herself. Frances is an overworked woman with too much on her shoulders; she is trapped.
Most modern readers require that there be steady forward motion in a narrative to keep them turning the pages. That is not how this novel is structured. Waters builds conflict gradually, but instead of leveling off once it is established, the problems keep coming. We learn that Lilian Barber has her own secrets—about a forced marriage and a baby that died. Then Frances and Lilian are drawn into each other’s arms, and shocking events start to unwind: a torrid love affair; an insanely jealous husband; an abortion; a murder and a subsequent cover-up, investigation, arrest of a suspect, and his trial. All of these occurrences, including lesbian sex, are entirely explicit. With the abortion and murder, the blood is described so vividly that the reader can almost detect its coppery smell. Sex and fear are dark and electric.
The love story turns into a crime story, as the reader is privy to Frances’ thoughts and feelings of guilt, fear, and confusion. We know she wants to do the right thing, though she repeatedly goes against her better judgment to help Lilian. We have trouble believing that Lilian is the product of unfortunate circumstances rather than being an evil woman with an agenda. Frances finds it hard to trust that the beautiful Lilian loves her, and her faith in Lilian is shaken several times as events move on. Frances’ thoughts become painfully paranoid when she learns that Lilian will receive money from her husband’s recently purchased insurance policy. Eventually, Frances returns to Champion Hill. She leaves the courthouse and avoids Lilian, whom we assume will not come back to her. Frances walks home, her old boots leaking, the filthy puddles soaking her feet. We’re reminded of her emotional vulnerability and her poverty amid affluence. We remember all that waits for her at Champion Hill.
While Paying Guests may have benefited from some pruning, Waters has created a believable milieu in which to set a story. With postwar London as a backdrop, the author gives us striking locations and gripping suspense, not to mention some well-developed characters.
Martha Miller is a Midwestern writer of plays, short fiction, reviews, articles, and novels. Her latest book is Tales from The Levee.