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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)

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

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It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.