The Paying Guests: shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction

Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests: shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction
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The Paying Guests: shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction

Sarah Waters

There came the splash of water and the rub of heels as Mrs Barber stepped into the tub. After that there was a silence, broken only by the occasional echoey plink of drips from the tap… Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms - as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, was what it really meant to have paying guests: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door. An image sprang into her head: that round flesh, crimsoning in the heat.

It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned, the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa, a large silent house now bereft of brothers, husband and even servants, life is about to be transformed, as impoverished widow Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

For with the arrival of Lilian and Leonard Barber, a modern young couple of the ‘clerk class’, the routines of the house will be shaken up in unexpected ways. And as passions mount and frustration gathers, no one can foresee just how far-reaching, and how devastating, the disturbances will be.

This is vintage Sarah Waters: beautifully described with excruciating tension, real tenderness, believable characters, and surprises. It is above all a wonderful, compelling story.


Set in London in 1922 – a city still reeling after World War I and in the midst of a rapidly transforming social order – Sarah Waters’s sixth novel addresses the crumbling prestige of the genteel class and the transitioning positions and frustrations of women. With father and sons dead, servants gone and the family finances in ruin, Frances Wray and her Victorian- minded mother are forced to rent out part of their family villa to lodgers – working-class newlyweds, Mr and Mrs Barber – in order to make ends meet. It is impossible to say much more without giving it all away, but their arrival results in major upheaval, as tensions between various members of the household escalate with drastic consequences.

The Paying Guests deals with some of Waters’s favourite themes, including gender, sexuality and class, while offering a new historical setting. This book might not be as fun as some of her earlier works (Waters seems to have had enough of her famous ‘Victorian lesbo romps’ that we all enjoyed so much) but The Paying Guests is another expertly researched historical novel that vividly recreates its chosen era. Waters portrays a world in flux as it struggles to cope with the consequences of the war, a theme that is reflected in the lives of the Wrays and the Barbers. The complexities surrounding the displacement of returned soldiers are also addressed with particular skill.

Do not be discouraged if the novel seems to be losing momentum around the halfway mark, as things do get a very thorough shake-up before long. Waters’s intricately weaved and suspense-filled plot ultimately makes for an engaging and satisfying read.

Ruth Pirrett works as a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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