Friday, 6 May 2016

Bookclub Discussion: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Welcome back to our new-style Triskele Book Club where, each month, we will discuss a novel the Triskele girls have recently enjoyed. Please feel free to join in and leave a comment. Let us know what you think of this book, even if you don’t agree with us!

Firstly, a few links to our Bookmuse Reviews of The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters’s sixth novel.

JJ’s first line of her review of The Paying Guests on Bookmuse: Like an old-fashioned kettle on the stove, this takes a while to come to the boil. But when it does, the steam and whistles could blow your head off.

Gillian’s first line of her review of The Paying Guests on Bookmuse: Wow. Wow, wow, wow. I LOVED this book. One of the times when you felt bereft as you neared the conclusion and so slowed your pace to make it last longer. Those kinds of books don’t come round too often for me.

Amazon Description: 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.

First off, how do you feel the author evoked life in 1920s London so well?

GEH: I listened to the audiobook version and I do think the narration added to the overall feeling of the period. For me it was nice to have a POV from the little-heard upper-middle-classes, whose voices aren't usually the most prominent in any historical fiction. I liked the fact there was nothing really special about Frances and yet her life still unravelled in such spectacular style - yet still in a quiet and controlled manner as befitted their class! Research was so subtle you barely thought about it and yet it was certainly there from the stockings they wore to the descriptions of London streets and the references to the class system in society.
JJ: I listened to this as an audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson, which added certain nuances to the novel. The difference in accent reminded me of how much more important social class was almost a hundred years ago. So in fact, the women are breaking not only one but two taboos.
The detail of the house and the effort it takes to make the thing function is an understated but powerful feature which underscores the above.
LP: As opposed to my colleagues, I read the ebook. So JJ's comment about different accents for different classes, is interesting as that's something I didn't pick up from the written word. However, for me, the author's attention to the most minute detail of everyday life is what really evoked this time period so well.

The Paying Guests has been described as “A masterpiece of social unease”. Do you agree, and why?

GEH: I'd not heard of that but I certainly wouldn't disagree. There seemed to be a feeling of frustration and inadequacy thought every aspect of the story. Not only in Frances but in her tenants and even her friends. There was the echoing aftershocks of WWI hovering over everyone and it felt no one could really get on with their lives. Of course there was also the ever-present class divides and the issues of same sex relationships. So much that went on behind closed doors that was never spoken about openly. I think the author did a brilliant job making even the reader feel uneasy.
JJ: The fallout of WWI is tangible, across the board. Broken, angry men wandering the streets, families destroyed, women taking charge and a sense of compromise or ‘making-do’ pervades the book. It’s an upset of social norms which was only ever meant to be temporary. But once society has been changed by circumstance, it won’t automatically revert. For the period, the events of this book are scandalous, yet the reader wholly believes how it might happen. Uncertainty makes anything possible.
LP: I would agree. It certainly brought to life social unease in several forms for me, through the disturbing aftermath of WWI paralleled with the social class differences, as well as the differences in each human relationship.

There’s certainly romance in this tale, but is it ONLY a love story?

GEH: I must admit I wouldn't class it as a love story at all. It's much more dark than that. I think regardless of whether it's same sex relationships or not this story could put you off for life! It's more about secrets and lies and life lessons than love for me.
JJ: It reminds me of EM Forster’s Maurice. That too is a same-sex love story but it’s about so much more. It’s about class, each social strata tightly bound to expectations of behaviour which are impossible to escape. The Paying Guests is about jealousy and power, not to mention how the tension of secrecy can rend the fabric of love.
LP: certainly there is SO much more than romance to this story ... it's about human relationships, good and bad, secret and deceitful, and the life-changing effects our decisions can have on our relationships with other people.

Do you have a favourite character, and why?

GEH: No. I couldn't really name any of them as a character that I connected with, for lots of reasons really. I certainly understood Frances and her motivations, but I didn't find her particularly likeable or found myself willing for a happy ending for her. I think Sarah Waters has that talent though. I felt the same about The Little Stranger and The Night Watch. The plotlines are gripping but I didn't find the characters all that engaging. I feel the author purposely tries to make us keep our distance and it's a distinctive style I really like.
JJ: No. I think Sarah Waters managed to makes me like, understand, despair of and laugh with the main characters from time to time.
LP: as my colleagues have said, I didn't really engage with one character over the others, which has been the same with all her novels. However, I felt each character was very well drawn, and I could easily imagine them.

What were your thoughts as you read the last page?

GEH: Really sad, have to say I have listened to it twice now, and the second time was just as good, but for different reasons, knowing what I knew about the ending - if you know what I mean!
JJ: That I wanted to go back to the beginning.
LP: I enjoyed it immensely, but wasn't sorry it ended. I'd had enough of this story and these characters by then.

I know all of Triskelites are great fans of Sarah Waters’s novels. Would you say The Paying Guests is your favourite? If not, which one?

GEH: No, I think that stays with The Little Stranger. This novel is very different and with none of her books can you really compare apples with apples. It was brilliant in its own way, but not quite up there.
JJ: I thought The Paying Guests was a wonderful but as to my favourite? Can’t decide between Fingersmith and The Little Stranger. I guess the difference is that I would read Fingersmith again and again. The Little Stranger scared me so much, I don’t need to read it again. Even thinking about that scene in the nursery still gives me a shiver.
LP: For me, Fingersmith, with its brilliant plotline and storytelling, stands out as my favourite.

For more details about Sarah Waters, refer to her website.

Are you a fan of Sarah Waters? If so, we'd love to hear your opinion on The Paying Guests, or any other of her novels.


  1. I have read The Night Watch, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith and have loved them all for different reasons. But Fingersmith absolutely blew me away - with its language, its recreation of the period, its vivid characters and its mindblowing plot twist.

    1. Yes, absolutely incredible plot... just loved it!

  2. I read and enjoyed The Night Watch and The Little Stranger - have had The PG in my to read pile for ages - will now mov it to the top. Thank you