Favourites on a Friday: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters


I thought that writing about my favourite books and authors would be a good way of providing an insight into my ‘reading identity’ as it were. This, the first post in the series, is dedicated to my favourite novel of 2014: The Paying Guests, the sixth novel by the acclaimed Sarah Waters. Waters is known for writing historical novels that focus on lesbian relationships, the most well-known possibly being her debut, Tipping the Velvet. Prior to reading The Paying Guests, I had read only one Waters’ novel, The Little Stranger (2009). This novel was something of a departure as it doesn’t contain any (overt) lesbian themes. I got the impression from reading some of the press surrounding the book that it was a less than successful departure for Waters, and I certainly wasn’t too taken with it myself. It was one of those novels where you reach the end and immediately have to go on the internet in search of an article that tells you What It All Means. So I wasn’t a Waters fan going into this novel.

I was instantly gripped by The Paying Guests, though. The historical background to the novel is particularly fascinating. The setting is England in the 1920s. Frances Wray and her mother are suffering the consequences of the social and economic changes brought about by World War One; Leonard and Lillian Barber, a young married couple of the ‘clerk class’ are benefitting from them. As a consequence of this reversal of fortunes, the Barbers take up lodgings in the Wrays’ home and become the paying guests of the title. What follows is a beautifully written study of love and class, written with seemingly effortless skill, and a truly gripping thriller.

I read this novel in December 2014 and it consumed me like no other book I have read for some time. A mark of its impact on me was that it precipitated a huge reading slump: for several weeks I searched grumpily for something just as good to take its place but to no avail. Time is yet to reveal whether or not The Paying Guests will stick with me and become one of my all-time favourites. All I know now is that it was a very difficult novel to get over.


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