The second book I read from the Baileys Prize shortlist was The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Prior to Sarah appearing on a writing panel at the Southbank last summer, I hadn’t yet heard of her so I had few expectations when beginning The Paying Guests.
The story is set in Camberwell; the year is 1922 and London is fraught with tension following the end of WW1. Following the death of her husband and son, and with money running thin on the ground, Mrs Wray and her spinster daughter Frances open their house to lodgers – a modern young couple called Lilian and Leonard Barber. Of a decent class and seemingly respectable, Frances and her mother have little idea of quite how much their lives will alter following the arrival of the Barbers.
The faded glamour of the 1920s backdrop offers the tale a slight Dickensian edge and the class divide between the central characters adds an interesting context to the post-war London setting. Fast-paced, evocative and compelling from the get-go, The Paying Guests is a masterclass in story-telling; gripping throughout with an explosive twist and a subtle climax. I have no doubt I’ll go on to read more of Waters in the future and I can certainly see why The Paying Guests was selected for this year’s shortlist.
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