Tuesday, December 30, 2014
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Times are difficult in 1922 England. Many of the nation's young men have been killed in the World War and its trenches, leaving their families to carry on as best they can, holding on to lifestyles from before the war with reduced incomes. That is the case with the Wray family. The two sons have been killed and the father dies of grief and illness, leaving Frances Wray, 26, to look after her widowed mother and support them. Gone are the days of servants, and Frances spends her days scouring the floors, figuring out bills, cooking meals and trying to entertain her mother. She sees nothing ahead but more years of this.
Finally, their monetary reserves are gone and something has to be done. They do a bit of renovation and advertise a suite for rent in their upstairs. This is a drastic step, as they are very private people but money must be found somewhere. A young married couple, Len and Lillian Barber, take the rooms. They are not the kind of people the Wrays would have ever chosen to associate with; young and full of life, boisterous and louder than they expected. Soon their upstairs suite is filled with furnishings that are cheap and a bit tawdry.
Yet, as the weeks go by, a friendship emerges between Frances and Lillian. As they get closer, Lillian reveals that all is not well in her marriage to Len. It was a hasty arrangement that doesn't have much love in it, yet Len is jealous of anyone who pays attention to Lillian. She socializes only with her family and Frances, yet the jibes and sarcasm from Len is unrelenting. The tension in the house mounts between Len and Lillian and the Wrays and the Barbers. When something horrendous happens, it seems inevitable.
No one does setting and characters like Sarah Waters. She has created a stifling atmosphere in which the smallest turn of phrase or gesture is magnified, and in which the brooding resentments that arise rush headlong to disaster. This book gives insight into the aftermath of war that is often overlooked and into the social structure of the country that held individuals in a straitjacket of conformity. This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.