The paying guests by Sarah Waters
Virago, 2014. ISBN 9780349004587
Highly recommended for mature readers. This latest novel by Sarah Waters is set in London in 1922. The Great War has ended, but its damage is still being felt by all classes. Families are still mourning lost sons and brothers, maimed veterans beg in the streets and there seems to be little work for even the able bodied ex-soldiers. The suffragette movement and the genteel poverty experienced because of changed economic conditions have led to changes in the way that many women live. The main character Frances and her mother Mrs Wray no longer have an adequate income; Frances must abandon her ambitions and become the cook and the cleaner in the family home, despite her mother's shame. Perhaps fortunately Frances was a suffragette and so is strong-minded enough to accept her life with some equanimity, despite having to abandon her female lover Christina. The Wrays take in boarders to help with their financial problems and at first feel humiliated by having a couple, Leonard and Lilian, from the clerk class living with them, but Frances begins to socialise with Lilian and falls in love with her. Lilian and Frances begin to form fanciful plans for their future, which are jeopardised by Lilian falling pregnant. Lilian's husband returns one night to find Lilian enduring a self-procured abortion. When he is told of their affair he attacks Frances and Lilian, to protect her, hits and kills him. The focus of the novel now shifts to that of a murder mystery and a police procedural. Frances conceals the truth and hides the body. She endures scrutiny from the police and her mother. Lilian is initially treated sympathetically because it is assumed that her miscarriage is a result of the shock of her husband's death. When a young man is arrested under suspicion and committed to trial both Frances and Lilian know they face a difficult choice, as they realize they cannot allow an innocent person to be found guilty. The days of the trial and the nights of waiting are described with meticulous detail. Frances' proleptic imagination supplies her with the details of her future life. She and Lilian seem far apart and their relationship and indeed lives seem doomed until the accused young man is found not guilty. Despite the moral ambivalence of their situation they feel free to look for happiness again.
This is a suspenseful story that clearly captures the rigidity of social norms and the inevitability of people's lives not fitting those norms. It is a love affair, and some passionate scenes are described in detail, but it is also about guilt and responsibility, and about the suffocating nature of class distinction. Behind it all is London of the early 1920's, its suburbs, streets, and attitudes, captured with authority by the author. The novel is recommended for sophisticated readers.