It's 1922 and all begins innocently enough with Frances Wray and her mother watching the clock in anticipation of the arrival of new lodgers to their home just outside of London. Mr Wray has died leaving a trail of debt and his two male heirs were killed while serving in World War I. The lure of employment at the munitions factory has cost the ladies their domestic help further widening the gaping hole in this family. Rather than sell up, Mrs Wray and Frances decide to let the upstairs of their home but this means upheaval and they are quite anxious about what will happen to their quiet way of life.
The Barbers are a young married couple, respectable enough, but it's the little things that soon show a relaxed nature which make Mrs Wray stiffen slightly, such as Leonard's bare feet in her kitchen as he makes his way to the yard for the WC or music and visitors well into the evening. Lilian's rather bohemian decorating style is cause for concern that the rooms now look...'like something from a Piccadilly backstreet'...but what can they do? Frances and her mother need the income.
Part one of the book depicts the blending of these four people within the confines of the terraced house they now share and class structure is deftly portrayed. Anyone who has stayed with an acquaintance knows exactly how it feels to be welcome but still feel a bit in the way. Once again, as in The Little Stranger, not only does the house feature as a character but the staircase carries an overwhelming presence. The weight of a foot on the tread or the speed of a stride is carefully calculated by the listener to anticipate mood...or warn of approach.
Sarah Waters exhibits great patience in the lead-up to some rather heart-pounding incidents in the second part of this book. Just when I was thinking 'okay, Sarah, what do you have up your sleeve?' she literally made me feel ill with the tension and detail of one crime, perhaps two, depending on your view of things. Over the course of two nights, while I read in the dark, the wind was howling, whipping the curtains around my head, exquisitely ramping up the atmosphere. You know the feeling when you wake up from a bad dream, think it was real, and then sigh with relief when you realize there is nothing to fear? Well, I felt like that the morning after as the writing is so vivid that I felt right there in the house, in the midst of things, and it was more than a bit unsettling.
You won't be able to put down The Paying Guests once you get started so clear your social calendar. Don't read this book on the bus or train unless you have someone to remind you that your stop is up next. Steel yourself, you are in for the ride of your life...well, as far as reading goes...and I hope you have a strong stomach because you are going to need it. This book WILL leave a mark.