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

Photo: Jonathan Cape
Show Hide image

Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496