I love Sarah Waters and I love thrillers, however I think that with The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters has achieved neither her best work, nor a good thriller. Set after the end of the First World War, widowed Mrs Wray and her daughter Frances are sinking gradually into a state of financial distress, as the unpaid bills mount up, Frances persuades her mother to take on lodgers.
In a smart, salubrious area of London, the hushed streets of Camberwell are about to be amazed. In a rather Barbara Pym-ish sort of way, Frances is ashamed to be seen washing her own front steps. The cleaner, the housekeeper and any maid has had to be ditched in favour of small economies; Frances cleans, cooks and manages the house but still there is not enough money and to her mother’s dismay…lodgers have to be found to fill the gap.
As we open the book, a nice couple called Mr and Mrs Barber move in. Initial awkwardness ensues, creaks and murmurs fill the rooms once used by Frances’ brothers, sadly now dead on the fields of France. Mr Barber, Leonard, goes out to work, occasionally stays late for “drinks with the men” and Mrs Barber, Lilian, stays at home with very little to do and all day in which to do it.
The gradual change in the landlady/lodger relationship creeps slowly from cool to warm and this being Sarah Waters a small frisson of Sapphic love peeps from beneath the frigid chill of embarrassment…
The thriller part, by far the weakest thread in the whole book comes later. I am beginning to assume that in a novel like this the protagonists faced with a choice inevitably choose the wrong path. But the set up here is sufficiently flimsy to stretch the credulity of the reader: even a very stupid woman, very deeply in love would hardly make such an unmitigated mess of her choices as Frances Wray. But then if she had done the sensible thing, there would have been little or no story.
A more rewarding read followed. Set mainly in Toronto, All my Puny Sorrows by Mirian Toews, a Canadian writer, gives us the memoirs of two sisters, Elfrieda and Yolandi, both trying desperately to understand each other and the world. Elf is a renowned pianist, Yolandi her chaotic and messy sister. In this poignant, sad and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny novel, Elf tries to end her life, while Yolandi messes up her love-life, chaotically sleeping with the wrong people and bringing up two hapless children, conceived by mistake from different fathers. At the same time as trying to persuade her sister to stay alive because she has so much to live for – a loving and settled relationship, a brilliant career, an adoring public, Yolandi is also getting a divorce and looking after her daughter with some wayward help from her mother.
I have never read Miriam Toews before, this novel has a lightness of touch that is both fragile and tough; the prose is pitch perfect and the sentiments profound. There are five previous novels and a non-fiction to catch up on. And if you haven’t read Sarah Waters before, I strongly recommend her other novels even if this one wasn’t quite to my taste.