The lodger. The housemate. The air b’n’b guest. Since time immemorial, people have been throwing open the doors of their homes – not from instrinsic hospitality, but for cold, hard money.
House sharing in some way is a rite of passage. Who ARE you unless you’ve lived with a randomly assembled, socially diverse group of young adults, in a hovel with mushrooms growing through damp carpets. What have you been DOING with your life if you have not experienced the communal cutlery/utensil drawer resembling a post-tsunami landscape (dotted with tiny, vulnerable pieces of dried mince clinging desperately to prongs)?
But what’s all very well for young people gets a bit awkward for grown adults, and a home that is previously your own. And there’s a special level of awkwardness that comes with a paying person sharing YOUR bathroom. Bathrooms are the nexus of awkwardness; where you come face to face with your own decrepitude, your own mortality. Layer on top of that your own house-sharer’s moulting, splitting hair (to choose one of the most palatable examples) and it’s beyond the pale. It’s so domestic, so intimate. There’s no face to be saved amidst the tiles and porcelain.
This exquisite awkwardness is at the heart of the first half of Sarah Waters’ latest, The Paying Guests. As the name suggests, the novel is set in a delicate world of snobbery in which the word “lodgers” is simply too offensive for polite society. Frances and her mother are financially forced to bring in tenants, and the invasion of their once-genteel, now struggling world is carefully drawn. The noise, the sense of being less of a part of your own home and and – worst! – the tramping through the kitchen to access the shared outside bathroom are all summoned up so you can almost hear these imposters tramping about over your head.
Every tiny tweak and twang of discomfort is teased out by Water’s excellent writing, and the finer social observations of class and money paint a fascinating picture of a changing world post-WW1, with the accepted rules of ten years before being rewritten before the characters’ eyes. Frances blames her mother’s snobbery but exhibits it almost equally herself unawareness. The triple themes of class, grief and duty interweave with delicate power.
But. BUT. This is the book’s real area of strength, but it’s not its focus, and there are many areas of weakness. If you’ve read Waters before, you can see where the narrative is going from early on, but that’s fine. What’s less fine is the second half of the book, which takes a dramatic turn into a crime novel which never really succeeds. There is an emotional realism in her depiction of the frayed nerves and anguish that come in the aftermath of a crime, but in the most part the novel sinks into hackneyed Inspector Calls bogland from which it can’t recover. The historical detail worn so lightly in the first half becomes heavy, and the themes are explored with less finesse than before.
The second half isn’t a complete failure, and the reader remains invested in the central relationship even though you no longer know if you want it to succeed – a clever balance to strike. But the descent into melodrama ultimately turns this engaging literary exploration of the boundaries between private and public into a tiresome soap opera. Read The Night Watch instead.