At the center of Sarah Waters' 2009 spooky thriller "The Little Stranger" is not a character but "a great big unhappy house," one that plays supernatural tricks on its occupants. The pivotal events in Waters' latest novel also take place in "a house with a history," and while there are no ghostly occurrences, the house — a guesthouse in 1920s London — is haunted by memories of a husband dead from a heart attack and two sons killed in the war. To fill the silence and to make ends meet, Frances Wray and her mother take in two lodgers — the "paying guests" of the title — and as cool reserve and decorum give way to conflict and passion, it becomes clear this time around Waters' focus is on people over place, and her aim is not to scare us but to move us.
Frances is dowdy and "old-maidish," a "cross-grained, unmarriageable daughter" immersed in a tame life of "buns and parish bazaars and games of two-handed patience." The stylish young Leonard and Lilian Barber move in and animate the grand but half-empty Camberwell villa and encourage Frances to let her hair down. During one gin-soaked evening, Frances finds herself repulsed by the leering, boorish Leonard — and attracted to his wife. Gradually, both women acknowledge their desires and embark upon an affair.
Waters' fiction is full of women like Frances who are missing "the man microbe, or whatever it is one needs." What makes "The Paying Guests" special, if not original, is Waters' depiction of a wife trapped in a miserable marriage and slowly coming to terms with her true sexuality.
The illicit love is well-handled, but the novel changes gear and only truly takes off around the halfway point when — without disclosing any spoilers — Leonard dies. The arrival of "Inspector Kemp and his wretched nose" results in turmoil, tension and both women feeling increasingly "paralyzed by the wrongness of things." The novel plays out in a courtroom with an unexpected and defiantly not-guilty party in the dock.
As with all her novels, Waters takes us back to a distant past and excels at transmuting meticulous research into evocative portraits and situations. We marvel at the re-created idiom of the era, the treatment of class (the genteel Wrays vs. the brash Barbers) and delineation of social change, particularly concerning recently enfranchised women ("I'm all for ladies' rights, I am," slurs a drunken Leonard. "I'm a proper Mrs. Pankhurst"). Just as convincing as the period detail are the descriptions of universal emotions such as falling in love — compared at one stage to a "culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan."
Despite its twists and turns, the climactic courtroom scene sags. Everywhere else the drama is taut. Another gripping and atmospheric triumph from one of Britain's finest storytellers.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.