Show Hide image

The woman on the first floor: Lionel Shriver on “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

In Sarah Waters’ new novel she shows herself to be a dab hand at conveying the immediacy of the past with no whiff of mothballs.

Domestic liaisons: an erotic postcard, c.1920. Popperfoto/Getty Images

The Paying Guests 
Sarah Waters
Virago, 576pp, £20

The likes of the O J Simpson and James Bulger cases had precedents in the 1920s, when the public grew equally enthralled by high-profile murder trials and followed them with soap-opera avidity. As Sarah Waters discloses in her acknowledgements, fascination with these older public addictions helped to inspire the fictional murder case in The Paying Guests.

Yet it takes hundreds of pages for the book to make it to an edge-of-your-seat trial. The long lead-up, however, is in some ways more impressive and pleasurable than the latter section’s also well-told but more conventional crime drama. Some readers may find the pace too leisurely but many others will find it luxurious, as I did. Waters has a remarkable ability to vivify the moment-by-moment quality of the commonplace. That pulsing presence on the page is a mark of real literature.

It is 1922. Courting spinsterhood at 26, Frances Wray lives with her mother in the house where she grew up in leafy, middle-class south London – though grubbier neighbourhoods such as Camberwell bristle nearby. Frances has lost both of her brothers in the war and, soon after, her father – about whose memory she is a touch sour, given that his poor investment decisions have left the women in greatly reduced circumstances. To make ends meet, they are forced to take in “paying guests” – the Wrays are too genteel to call them lodgers – to whom they sacrifice a portion of the first floor.

Enter a recently married young couple, Leonard and Lilian Barber, from whom Frances accepts a brown envelope shortly after their arrival: “She tucked it in her pocket in a negligent sort of way – as if anyone, she thought, could possibly be deceived into thinking that the money was a mere formality, and not the essence, the shabby heart and kernel, of the whole affair.”

Although Lilian aspires to refinement – she has artistic flair and a way with hats and hair – a visit by her coarse, boisterous family from the Walworth Road removes any ambiguity about the class from which she hails. An insurance functionary by day, the rakish Leonard enjoys his drink and gives as good as he gets in a domestic donnybrook. The uncomfortably close proximity to the couple’s arguments reveals to Frances that the Barbers’ marriage is not a happy one, although her mother would prefer that her daughter minded her own business.

If it does Waters a disservice to pigeonhole her as an author of “lesbian fiction”, she has nevertheless consistently written about lesbian characters. Fans will take it in their stride to find that Frances has previously had an affair with another woman, about which her mother learned enough to find the relationship unsavoury. To keep from bringing scandal on the family, she has broken things off with her lover, whom she still visits in secret, albeit in a platonic capacity – a disavowal about which she continues to feel cowardly.

Hence, as Frances grows increasingly smitten with Lilian, we are aware that the passion is more than a girlish crush. For the lodger, as far as we know, their lingering walks and picnics in the park are innocent. Throwing down the gauntlet, Frances at last discloses her untoward romantic history to Lilian, who has interpreted previous allusions to a thwarted romance as references to an ill-fated engagement to a man. The revelation has a chilling effect on the budding friendship – but not for long. With the application of alcohol and opportunity, Frances’s ardour is returned.

The two women’s ever more risqué and riskier involvement has some of the same frisson of erotically charged danger displayed in Maria McCann’s masterful As Meat Loves Salt, although what is at stake for two women in love in the 1920s can’t compare to the perils of two men in love during the English civil war, when homosexuality was a hanging offence. Nevertheless, in today’s era of gay characters in television series being not only acceptable but sometimes even trite, one of the ironic losses to same-sex relationships has been the edginess of the taboo. Historical fiction can restore the juice of forbidden fruit.

At last, a dire turn of events kicks the novel into crime fiction and at this point what is at stake for Lilian and Frances is their lives – in the 1920s, murder is a hanging offence. Because any suggestion of hanky-panky could incriminate them, the pair are obliged to keep a distance. Readers are apt to grow frustrated with Frances’s self-destructive lack of discipline: “She had to see Lilian. She had to see Lilian!” The reader responds, “No, you didn’t!” and eventually, “Shut up about Lilian!” But this is skilful authorial manipulation, for the audience’s exasperation is a powerful narrative driver and injects further energy into the story.

The whole novel rolls along nicely, gathering momentum as it proceeds. If Frances can be mawkish about her lover, the sentimentality is the character’s and not the author’s. The high quality of the writing is seamlessly consistent; even the sex scenes manage some serious viscosity without being embarrassing.

Waters sets her tale in the time effortlessly. The past was once the present; the 1920s was once as “modern” as modern could be. Waters is a dab hand at conveying that immediacy, with no whiff of mothballs, no browning of the vista with a sepia tint. A lot of work must have gone into writing this novel but it is no labour at all to devour. 

Lionel Shriver’s most recent novel is “Big Brother” (HarperCollins, £7.99)

Lionel Shriver is an author and journalist. Her most recent novel is Big Brother.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis