#3wordreview: exhilarating inter-war thriller

The Paying Guests

The Paying Guests

At the beginning of the twenties, in a South London still emotionally and materially impoverished by war, Frances Wray and her mother reluctantly take on lodgers - or 'paying guests' - to help with the upkeep of their suddenly too-big house. The new tenants, the Barbers, are an urbane young couple whose presence seems, from the outset, destined to change the dynamic of the household. But nobody can predict how violent those changes will be.

Waters is always celebrated for her startlingly authentic evocation of bygone times, and that meticulousness is all over this book. But talking about her historical accuracy damns Waters with faint praise. What marks her out from writers of similar technical brilliance is her relish in leading the reader breathlessly through a story.

All her books are high-class entertainment rather than period pieces, and after a very sedate start, 'The Paying Guests' becomes one of her most breakneck novels so far, as a subtle comedy of manners turns into a genuinely tense thriller. Plenty of writers create texture and atmosphere, but hardly any - and especially hardly any with Sarah Waters' literary credibility - delight quite so obviously in spinning an old-fashioned yarn. As a result, very few are as much fun to read as she is. Plus, not many get inside human relationships with quite such a sure hand. The central relationship of the book - between Frances and one of the lodgers - is brilliantly charted through awkwardness to dangerous passion, all the way to tragedy and beyond.

This is probably Waters' slowest-burning novel and at first glance it appears to cover relatively familiar territory. But the reader's patience is handsomely rewarded. However assiduous a researcher she might be, and however important that research to every book she writers, let's hope it isn't another five years until the next one.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, which is announced on 3rd June. http://www.womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/