tisdag 9 februari 2016

The Paying Guests - Painless ambitious reading

I wonder if it's a spoiler to say that a novel doesn't have a twist? As a matter of fact, I rather think it might be. Let me mitigate my spoiling, then, by saying that The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters does contain surprising turns of event - and not all of them unpleasant, either. What it doesn't have is the sort of rug-pulled-away-under-your-feet twist which makes you reassess the characters and what's been going on completely. I've come across twists like these in the other two books by Waters that I've read, Fingersmith and Affinity, and consequently I viewed Lilian, the heroine's love interest, with some suspicion. We know about those butter-wouldn't-melt type of women, don't we? She is no con artist, though: if the characters of The Paying Guests let each other down at times, it's because of other failings than cold-hearted deviousness.

Taking place in London in 1922, the novel opens with the protagonist, Frances Wray, and her mother receiving their new lodgers, Leonard and Lilian Barber. The Wrays are genteel (which is why their friends refer to their lodgers as "paying guests") but fallen on hard times, the Barbers are of the "clerk class". Frances doesn't much like having to share her house with strangers, and is at first a little contemptous of the Barbers, though she appreciates Lilian's kindness. Her positive feelings towards Lilian grow stronger as the two women become friends, until Frances has to admit to herself that she's fallen in love. With one failed love affair already behind her, this is unwelcome news, especially as Lilian's first reaction when realising that her friend's lost love was a actually a girl is shock and embarrassment. Will Lilian come round? And, it that case, how are they going to handle the small matter of her husband Leonard?

If you want to read a critically acclaimed novel which is also an entertaining piece of storytelling, bristling with the traditional virtues of character and plot, then look no further. For sheer page-turning value, I liked Fingersmith more: as the plot of The Paying Guests is that of a chamber piece, I did at times want the few characters involved to get on with it. But the prose has verve, and Frances is an engaging protagonist. Once you've resigned yourself to the fact that some particular plot point won't be resolved in a hurry, you can sit back and enjoy her take on things. The Paying Guests is also a kinder book than both Affinity and Fingersmith, and the characters (not just Frances - even Leonard is fairly, sometimes even sympathetically, treated) easier to like.

It gives one hope that critics can stoop to praising a good storyteller. Of course, this must mainly be because of the good writing. I suspect, though, that the all-female love affairs help, and that the supposedly challenging "lesbian angle" protects Waters from the accusation of being old-fashioned. Ironically, the relationships depicted by Waters are not in any way exotic: that's one of the points she very effectively makes in her novels. The heartbreaks, thrills, betrayals and reconciliations her female protagonists go through are the same as those a "man's woman" might experience - or a man, come to that. In The Paying Guests, the robust common sense with which the story is told (unlike Margaret in Affinity, Frances is no whiner) makes sure that the straight reader never feels preached to. True, you learn a thing or two about the situation for lesbians in Twenties England (not all bad - two girls can set up house together without any awkward questions being asked), but the story doesn't feel like it's written from any particular angle. It's just a love story.