This was my third Sarah Waters novel (Fingersmith and The Little Stranger being the other two) and unfortunately it’s the one I enjoyed the least. Not that there’s any decline in the quality of the prose – far from it. Waters skilfully evokes the post-war come-down of 1920s London, full of tensions between its fading gentility, aspirational clerks and Bloomsbury-style bohemians. She brings to life the once-grand family home in South London, gradually falling into disrepair along with its occupants, and the central love story unfolds in exquisite and surprisingly graphic detail.
But it’s this detail that’s the problem – there’s just too much of it. Every nuance of every thought, word and deed – every look, every inference – is painstakingly described, but as the story takes a more dramatic turn such realism is at the expense of pace and tension. A pivotal scene which should be shocking and arresting ultimately just drags on. The third act begins well but the tension of its early scenes soon dissipates with too much repetition, not helped by the fact that the reader already knows what the protagonists are trying to find out.
With a bit of careful editing The Paying Guests could have been a more satisfying book, but despite its faults it’s still an enjoyable read. However, I do have a more fundamental problem with its conclusion. It’s one thing to suggest that no love is more noble than a love between two women, But to imply that the pursuit of this love can justify a morally indefensible act such as murder is a step too far.
Sarah Neal is an avid knitter, magazine editor and book lover based in Essex.
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