From the first pages of “The Paying Guests,’’ it’s clear that something is up. Why is the genteel Frances Wray doing housework, and why have she and her mother taken in lodgers, albeit in the most refined way (as Frances tells a friend, “We call them paying guests, on Champion Hill”)? Why is everything fake: Mr. and Mrs. Barber’s “ ‘refined’ elocution-class accents”; the “dishonesty” of the “patched” house; the late Mr. Wray’s treasured antiques, which have turned out to be “Victorian fakes”; Frances’s own “false, bright way”? And why is Mr. Barber’s manner “vaguely unsettling”?
Why indeed? Because the new Sarah Waters novel, which finds the author at the height of her powers, weaves her characteristic threads of historical melodrama, lesbian romance, class tension, and sinister doings into a fabric of fictional delight that alternately has the reader flipping pages as quickly as possible, to find out what happens next, and hesitating to turn the page, for fear of what will happen next.
At least most of the time. Despite — or perhaps because of — its ominous tension, the middle slows to a near-glacial pace (including a single climactic evening that stretches to about 30 pages of minute detail). But overall, the novel is so delicious that, by its gasp-worthy last few pages, any bitter taste is long forgotten.
It is 1922, and the Great War still casts a long shadow over England. The Wrays, like everyone around them, have been hit hard, losing two well-mourned sons to battle, a not-so-mourned father to apoplexy, and their means to paternal bad investments. Frances has come home from an interlude as a Sapphic suffragette to care for the house and her mother. Her sole pleasures are the evening cigarette she rolls alone in her bedroom and the occasional visit with her friend Christina, who lives the bohemian Bloomsbury life Frances abandoned.
Enter the paying guests: jaunty aspirational clerk Leonard Barber and his short-skirted, lipsticked wife, Lilian, bringing bric-a-brac and gin into the upstanding Wray home. Although she is at first disturbed by their “odd, unintimate proximity,” Frances becomes increasingly intimate with the Barbers, progressing from eavesdropping obsessively on their domestic sounds (Waters is a virtuoso of the domestic lives and spaces of the past) to sharing their gin and more.
In winking homage to the cliff-hanging, three-volume 19th-century novel — one of many signs of the Victorian legacy that hangs heavy over Frances — Waters ends part one of “The Paying Guests’’ with love, part two with death, then shifts in part three to slippery mystery. If the signal question in the first section is when (will the lovers finally come together), the question for the last part is what (on earth is going to happen). This is the rare novel that leaves the reader unsure of its ending till the very last pages, fomenting twist after twist, some at least partially suspected (by Frances and readers alike), others shocking everyone.
But “The Paying Guests” offers more than love, sex, death, detectives, and Frances’s agonized ruminations thereupon (though, really, what more could you want?). It is also a piercing portrait of a character and time marked by the dramatic social transitions capped by the Great War. Frances, alternately strait-laced and passionate, endearing and irritating, has retreated from the modern present of Christina and Bloomsbury to the Victorian past of her mother and Champion Hill. But the Barbers bring a different aspect of the present home, the one in which clerks and shopkeepers’ daughters move to Champion Hill.
The present is haunted by the pervasive remains of the war — widows, peg-legged veterans begging on the street, “the smell of khaki and of certain French cigarettes,” Frances’s nostalgia for a time when change seemed possible. But the conflict’s most powerful legacy is social upheaval. “The War took all our best men, and with them went everything that’s decent and lawful,” says Mrs. Wray’s wealthy friend, Mrs. Playfair. Ironically, the upstart tabloids agree: “the Express lamented the ‘great tide of juvenile lawlessness’ that had swept the country since the War.” Still, at the novel’s end, after its dramatic plot resolution, Waters allows us the faintest hope that this not-so-brave new world may have a tiny corner for Frances after all.
Rebecca Steinitz can be reached at email@example.com.