The Paying Guests ~ a personal journey

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The last time I remember having rushed out to get a book that was just hot off the press was 8 years ago back in 2006, and it was for Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch. I had only discovered Waters’ writing in the year before that. Up till then, I had not heard of this writer before, and had no clear idea what her books were about. I happened to have gotten some book vouchers that had to be used and while browsing the bookshop one day, I was intrigued by the cover of a book I saw on the shelves. The visual effect of that pair of pink shoes against a black backdrop, caught my attention. Flipping the book open, I read the opening lines.

Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it.

And then, remember it I did. I suddenly remembered that I have in fact read these lines before! It was then I realized that my first acquaintance with Waters was actually another 5 or 6 years earlier on, when I had read an online excerpt of the first chapter of Tipping The Velvet. I remembered I was impressed with the writing then and was quite taken in with the narration, and would have loved to read on. But my accessibility to books back then was not as easy and conveniently available as they are now, thus I didn’t manage to get hold of the book at that time. And somewhere along the line, it just got slipped out of my mind altogether, as Life (and love, unrequited & undeclared as it was, though) got in the way. I was just stepping out into the working world around that time and in those few years that followed, books and reading were regrettably relegated to the backseat.

To cut a long story short, Waters’ debut novel sparked off more than just my reading mojo when I finally read it. It gave a voice to that which I had been struggling with in silence in the 5 years or so prior to that. I was thrilled with the discovery of this new voice and quickly went on to read Affinity, followed by Fingersmith shortly after. And each time when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, I was confounded and amazed once again at how she manages to pull it off.

After finishing Fingersmith, I was desperate to have an outlet to talk about the book. That sent me launching out into cyberspace and soon I had found my way onto the Virago forum, which at that time was all abuzz with several discussion threads going on following the newly released BBC adaptation of Fingersmith. That forum would later turn out to be the platform by which my life’s course would take a crucial turn. Just like the changing of tracks along the railway lines, steering the train off in a completely different route altogether.

Just like how different things would have been if Tess’ first letter of confession had been read by Angel before their wedding, and had not gotten slipped under the carpet instead, in Hardy’s Tess of d’Ubervilles.

Just like how things would have been very different if Lilian Barber had not stepped forward and made her way across the kitchen to give Frances Wray a kiss on the lips, in Waters’ latest offering, The Paying Guests.

And that is not a spoiler, in case you are worried, for the crux of the story lies in the implications and consequences after that. There are many things about the book that made me love it as much as I do. Not least of all being Waters’ beautiful writing and masterful pacing in the telling of the story. All so exquisitely well done. It has been ages since I last read a book that has caught hold of me so completely, that it was as if I too had lived through all those moments along with Frances Wray, the upper middle class daughter of a household that has fallen on hard times after the war, and had resorted to taking in the Barbers, a young married couple from the ‘clerk class’ as their ‘paying guests’.

After losing both her brothers in the war, followed by the untimely death of her father who left behind nothing but a pile of debts (and a collection of furniture pieces that turned out to be Victorian fakes), Frances is left to clean after the mess and take charge of matters, which includes caring for her aging mother, Mrs Wray, as well as the upkeep of the house. I loved the way Waters managed to capture and portray the dynamics in the mother and daughter relationship with such subtle sensitivity.

The way Frances has to constantly struggle to keep it all in even as she is aware of the wary eye that her mother is keeping on her.

They were practically strangers. She hadn’t had an inkling of Lilian’s existence until six weeks before. Now she’d catch herself thinking of her at all sorts of odd moments, always slightly surprised when she did so, able to follow the thought backward, stage by stage, link by link, this idea having been called to mind by that one, which in turn had been suggested by that… But they all had their finish at Lilian, wherever they started. [.....]

Her mother must be imagining now that she had some sort of crush on Lilian. She was warning her – was she? Was she looking into the future, seeing disappointments, tears? She couldn’t guess then, how dizzyingly far beyond a crush Frances and Lilian had already travelled.

The way Mrs Wray struggles to confront her daughter with all her fears and suspicions.

She went to one of her father’s chairs, leaned heavily against the back of it. And when, a moment later, she looked up, her mother was staring at her – and there it was, that fear, that suspicion, showing again in her expression. [....]
‘I want to believe you, Frances. But all your life you’ve had these – these queer enthusiasms. If I were to think, even for an instant, that that woman had involved you —’
‘There’s nothing, Mother.’
‘Do you promise me? Do you swear it? On your honour?’
Frances wouldn’t answer that. For a moment they pulled against each other, both of them frightened as much by the oddness and tension of their pose as by anything that had or hadn’t been admitted.

The way both mother and daughter, although sharing a common grief, yet had to do the grieving separately, unable to be transparent with each other.

She wanted to sit at the foot of the staircase with her head in her hands. ‘Oh, Mother,’ she wanted to say, ‘our hearts are breaking. What on earth are we to do?’
But she hadn’t spoken candidly like that to her mother in about twenty years. Even after her brothers’ deaths, the two of them had done their crying in private.

But above all these, the thing that really gave this book that special place in my heart, was how closely I could see Frances’ character reflected in myself. I could relate to each of her thoughts, her fears, her doubts, her regrets, her struggles….. in fact, I could almost picture myself in her shoes. That was why I found the book to be such a vivid reading experience. I was living it.

Having lost my own father unexpectedly in a similarly untimely manner about 6 years ago, the burden to take on family responsibilities (& debts) were more or less shoved onto my shoulders, not quite unlike Frances. And like her, I too have an aging mother (with the same wary eyes) to consider and care for. I can understand exactly how Frances feels whenever her mother comments or complains at the way things are done (or not done) and how it seems to be never good enough no matter how much effort  has been put into it. And I can also understand how Frances felt when she realized that what she had thought of “…. as a sort of bravery”,  thinking of the things she had had to give up/ sacrifice in order to take on her expected role as the dutiful daughter/ sister, was in actual fact just a cover for her own cowardice.

Sometimes things become a muddle. They become such a muddle, Mother, that they turn into a sort of quicksand. You take a step, and can’t get free, and —’
She couldn’t continue. Her mother waited, looking troubled – but looking weary, too. Finally she sighed. ‘What a fight you’ve always made of everything, Frances. And all I ever wanted for you were such ordinary things: a husband, a home, a family of your own. Such ordinary, ordinary things.

Such ordinary, ordinary things. Yes.
But this is no ordinary book.
Cosy Book’s Darlene wrote in her review that this book WILL leave a mark.
It certainly did, with me.
What about you?

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