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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

Voices From The Background Of History

The Paying Guests - Sarah Waters

Set just after the First World War, The paying Guests is the story of Frances, a young woman living with her mother in genteel poverty in South East London. Her father, now deceased, lost all his money in a series of unwise investments and her two brothers were killed in the war. Much to her mother's distaste, Frances has resorted to taking in lodgers to pay the bills.


At first glance this seems to be a novel about the social upheaval that followed the Great War. However, this being Sarah Waters, it's also an exploration of what that felt like for a woman who, on account of her sexuality,  is not able to meet the expectations of the times. Frances has already had one abortive affair with another woman but her mother's disapproval, her own sense of obligation and perhaps also a lack of courage caused it to fall apart.


When Lillian and her husband move in, Frances's first feelings are all to do with the difficulty of adjusting to her lodgers' rather brash, working-class ways. However, it isn't long before an attraction begins to develop between Frances and Lillian and it is what that attraction leads to that forms the core of this book and turns it into an absolutely gripping thriller.


Sarah Waters writes about lesbian characters and there is lots of sex between the two women but it never seems gratuitous. It always feels extremely real and an important part of the story. Equally real is the anguish they go through when everything goes horribly wrong and they find themselves part of a police investigation. Their relationship, always precarious, is placed under enormous pressure and Sarah Waters is unflinching in her depiction of what this does to them both as individuals and as a couple.


For me, Waters' great achievement is that she gives voice to some of those characters who inhabit the background of history. She makes you feel that you are living their shadowy lives and suffering the thousand small  agonies they endure. You are drawn into their nightmare and turn every page with a desperate longing to discover whether they will survive the ordeal and how it will have transformed them.