Sunday, November 23, 2014


Sarah Waters has crafted a wonderful read in The Paying Guests. Generally, I am favourably disposed to reading stories set in or around the world wars and this one does not disappoint. The novel is billed as a murder story, but that's not the heading I would use, even if the murder clearly is a dramatic focal point that inevitably draws the characters to crisis points.

Frances is a mid-twenties young woman, called a spinster in this era, who lives with her widowed mother in a too-large London house left vacant by the loss of her two brothers in the war. It is 1922 and they are forced to take in lodgers – the Barbers
to support upkeep of the house. Frances bears the burden of taking care of her mother and the house and bears the brunt of the strain of living in diminished means. The novel opens with the young couple moving in to the upstairs and instantly setting in motion enormous changes in how Frances and her mother live. The gradually unfolding saga of the Barbers’ relationship and the eventual entwinement with Frances is a pathway that can only end in grief.

Waters is tremendously talented at describing the inner thoughts and feelings of her characters. The increasing inner conflict and tension that Frances experiences in relationship with her mother, close friends and quickly with Lillian and Leonard Barber dramatically hooked me in to their story.

As a minimalist detail gatherer, I could have enjoyed the novel with 100 pages less of Frances’ highly angst-ridden inner dialogue as she grappled with her emotions and ethics. I felt like I needed a break from this intensity as the events unfolded. And yet, I can appreciate that this backdrop is how Waters brings her audience to walk in the shoes of her various characters. One is left breathless until the end, waiting to discover the fates of Frances and Lillian.

The Paying Guests is tremendously entertaining and I look forward to Waters' next offering.

Jennifer Mackie has lived in Guelph for over 40 years, is a business consultant with never enough hobby time for reading, sports, online puzzles and quilting. She reads for entertainment and to discover the world of ‘curious’. Along with finding value in the story, she enjoys experiencing different writer’s styles and methods for how they entice one into their made up worlds. 

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