Strangers in the house…

I enjoy Sarah Waters’ interesting and well-written novels – the last one, the gothic The Little Stranger, was unnerving and scary and utterly absorbing. Her latest, Paying Guests, feels like a mashup of a number of her other books, very “Sarah Waters”:
– the rise of the ‘clerk classes’ tick
– the sinking of the comfy Victorian middle classes tick
– melancholy lesbian love tick
– often at odds, but emotionally-tied-together mothers and daughters tick
– the dilapidated crumbling house tick
– the ongoing trauma of war and unimaginable death tick
– happy lesbian love tick
– questioning of the purpose of a war not long ended tick
– changing roles of women in public and family life tick
– plucky heroines tick
– less impressive heroes tick
– stirring emotional crescendos tick
– the desperate making-do in straitened circumstances and a changing world tick

…all of which sounds like I don’t like it, but I do. The writing is excellent, the story is fascinating and I had no idea what was going to happen. Waters’ circling of the themes above has created a marvelllous body of work, and her historical knowledge of the times is lightly handled. I thought the touch of melodrama, of slight over-wroughtness worked – these are people still recovering from a cataclysm…

Paying Guests starts in 1922, with a mother (a little fluffy, dreaming of glorious Victorian times) and daughter (spirited, who once threw a shoe at an MP as a suffragist protest) taking in lodgers, a Mr and Mrs clerk, as it were,  to bring in more money, as their big house servantlessly crumbles amid the grief and desolation still miring the survivors of the Great War as desperately as  the mud of the trenches mired the men in World War I. Waters captures well the oddness of the situation, the disquieting otherness of strangers, however nice, in your house. Before long, all sorts of things start happening: skirts are taken up a couple of inches, hair is bobbed, visits are made by and to the in-trade mother and sisters of Mrs clerk, neigbours lament the changing of the old social order, glances are exchanged, emotional pitches are raised, mother is uneasy, kisses abound, old lovers are revisited… it all ends horribly. Really horribly, in a horribly real way. There are policemen, lawyers and courts. Waters is pretty amazing here, climbing inside the skins of her characters, showing glimpses of their motivations and fears.
It is a good read, I’d be interested to see what she’d write if she was examining the aftermath of the West’s unfortunate adventures in Iraq or Afganistan, rather than the Big War that started a century ago this year.  I suspect almost anything from the list of themes above would still be relevant – in many ways we haven’t changed much in 100 years.


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