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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)

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