The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

I remember picking up a paperback copy of ‘Tipping the Velvet’, Sarah Waters’ first novel, in a London bookshop, years ago. It wasn’t because I’d heard of the author or of the book, it was because the cover caught my eye and because I spotted a Virago apple on the spine.

Since then her star has risen and risen to such glorious heights; I had to wait and wait in a very long library queue – as long a queue as I have ever waited in – to read ‘The Paying Guests.’

I wish that I could say that I loved it, but I can’t quite say that.

Maybe my expectations were just a little too high.

Maybe I was the wrong reader. I’ve always believed that how we respond to books is heavily influenced by the books we’ve read before. I’ve read many books from this period; and ‘A Pin to See the Peepshow’ by F Tennyson Jesse, a book that Sarah Waters has acknowledged as a significant influence, is a particular favourite of mine ….

As I read ‘The Paying Guests’ I found things to love, I found things to admire, but I also found things that I didn’t love and things that disappointed me.

The story began beautifully: on an afternoon in 1922, Mrs Wray and her grown-up daughter, Frances, were at home, on the outskirts of London, awaiting the arrival of their first paying guests. Mr Wray had died leaving little but debt, his two sons had been killed in the Great War, and so his wife and daughter had to manage alone. Frances had persuaded her other that, rather than sell up, she would take on the domestic duties that had been done by servants in the past and they would let part of the house. She could manage. They could manage. But now that the day had come Mrs Wray’s worries had returned and Frances was anxious about how it would all work.

18485452The Barbers were a young married couple, and they unsettled the house. They did nothing wrong. But they were different, they were so much more modern, so much more relaxed in the way that they lived.

Sarah Waters captures the discomfort of having change in your home, of having to be ever aware of other people, of having to deal with things – small but significant things that you never had to deal with before – quite perfectly. And as she slowly builds up to the dramatic incident that will be the centrepiece of her story she reveals more about her characters; the picture becomes clearer, the psychology becomes clearer, and it all makes sense.

The details are so well chosen, and the story is so very well rooted in its era; that and the sheer quality of the writing made this part of the story, where very little happened but it was clear that something was going to happen, utterly compelling.

The characters were not likeable, but they were believable. I appreciated that there were no heroes and no villains, just real, fallible human beings.

That dramatic incident was inevitable, but when it came it was shocking. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t.

That shifted the story, and that was where things started to go wrong.

The remainder of the book was concerned with the fallout from that incident, and though it was compelling, though it had significant things to say, about marriage, about justice, about change in the post-war world, it was compromised by the love story that Sarah Waters so clearly wanted to play out.

I could accept the blurring of right and wrong, though I didn’t like it; there were other thingsthat I found much more difficult to accept.

I felt that Sarah Waters compromised her characters – in some cases she made them blind – to reach the ending she wanted. I couldn’t help feeling that it was the wrong ending, though I give her great credit for not making it a definitive ending; there were clearly things that had to be faced in the future.

(I wish I could explain a little more, I wish I could ask certain questions, but I think that it’s far too early in this book’s life to write about specific plot points.)

The emotions rang true, so much rang true, but those things that didn’t ring true, pulled me right out of the story.

That’s why, though I found much to appreciate in this book, my lasting feeling is one of disappointment.

2009: A Year in the Library … and a Year in the Pub


Let’s start in the library.

J. Kaye from J. Kaye’s Book Blog hosted the 2009 Support Your Local Library Challenge.

You could commit to reading 12, 25 or 50 library books in 2009. I went for the maximum, and I knew it wouldn’t be a problem.

Here are a few reasons why I love  libraries:

  • I am lucky to have a good public library service – I can order any book in the county or in a large reserve stock for just 50p.
  • I also belong to the wonderful Morrab Library. There are only 19 private subscription libraries in the UK and this one is just a few minutes walk from home.
  • I can still visualise where my favourite books were in the library when I was a child.
  • Without libraries I wouldn’t be able to read anything like as widely as I do.
  • I pass the library as I walk home from work. A little look around the shelves after a difficult day is wonderfully theraputic!
  • I like to think I can influence what the library stocks by ordering and borrowing books. I have been known to borrow under-borrowed books that I own to help their statistics.
  • Don’t book lovers have a duty to support libraries? If we don’t we can’t assume they will still be there and then how will people who can’t afford to buy books read and how will other people discover books?
  • I first met my fiancé in the library!

I’ve  read 106 library books this year.

Some wonderful new authors and a few books that I hadn’t heard of until I saw them on the shelves.

I’ve added some to my shelves since, there are more I’d like to.

And I’ve uncovered a few put of print gems.

The full  list is here.


And so to the pub

The 2009 Pub Challenge was hosted by Michelle at

Read at least nine books published for the first time in your country in 2009. I’ve done 3 rounds – 27 books.

Here they are:




(There are a few more I’ve read but not written about yet and, I suspect, a couple I’ve missed.)

Some great books – the ones I’ve starred are la creme de la creme!

Austen-fest Day 2 – Dancing With Mr Darcy

I saw this book for the first time in the window of a local bookshop, went straight in for a closer look and handed over my money straight away.

Something special? Definitely!

First there was the title – Dancing With Mr Darcy: stories inspired by Jane Austen and Chawton House, It sounded charming, and definitely a better class of Jane Austen spin-off.

And then a little further down the page – Introduced by Sarah Waters. Her involvement had to be a positive sign.

And on the back cover – 20 original stories. Wonderful! And I discovered that the book was published by Honno – a small press I have come to love this year.

More than enough for me to know that this was a book that I had to bring home.

Sarah Waters, I learned from her introduction, was asked by Chawton House Library to judge the final stages of its short story competition. She had reservations – fearful that she would meet a “cartoon Austen” – but she went ahead, and writes that she was impressed by the quality and diversity of the stories.

Certainly, every type of Austen related story that you might want is here.

Jane herself, in familiar and unfamiliar settings.

Victoria Owens’ winning story, “Jane Austen Over The Styx”, had Jane in the afterlife brought to task by certain of her own characters.

In the wrong hands this could have been awful, but this story was quite brilliantly executed. The narrative voice is wonderful, and it balanced a love of the original texts with a willingness to question them and maybe look from a new point of view.

New stories for well-loved characters.

“We Need To Talk About Mr Collins” suggested Mary Howell. Her story suggested other possibilities for Charlotte Lucas. and was very nicely done.

Or modern visitors into familiar stories.

I wondered about Felicity Cowie’s “One Character in Search of Her Love Story.” Dispatching an agent into a book made me wonder if I was going to get a reworking of Thursday Next, but actually what I got was something rather different and very interesting. A modern heroine seeking answers in old books:

“But Mr Darcy is every woman’s ideal man, Jane. Aren’t you secretly disappointed that you don’t end up with him?”

Miss Bennett shook her head firmly.

“Mr Bingley singles me out from the start of our acquaintance and, as soon as he is sensible of my returned feelings , he proposes marriage to me. But I am not sure that Mr Darcy is such a good man until Lizzy speaks to him of his improper pride.”

Quite wonderful. And in her afterword Felicity Cowrie explains that this story started as an exercise to help her to get to know the heroine of her new. I definitely want that novel! Now!

Jane’s character’s in new settings.

“The Delaford Ladies Detective Agency” by Elizabeth Hopkinson saw the new Mrs Ferrars, at a loose end, investigating a mystery. Miss Austen meets Mr McCall Smith. In the wrong hands it could have been awful but as a short story in this particular author’s hands it was rather fun.

Or modern-day equivalents of those characters.

Beth Cordingly’s “Ellie and Marianne” saw Ellie hide her own broken heart while she tended to her sister’s. Sounds familiar? A lovely and moving story, simply and beautifully told.

And maybe best of all stories of those who love Jane Austen.

“Tears Fall on Orkney” by Nancy Saunders found a  young woman whose love was unrequited looking to the works of Jane Austen for guidance and support.  A simple story, beautifully written and quite heartbreaking.

But if I had to pick a favourite I think it would have to be “Cleverclogs” by Hilary Spiers. A schoolgirl becomes a bibliophile after her grandmother introduces her to the works of Jane Austen. The joys of loving books are so wonderfully conveyed.

“Sometimes when I’m lying in bed at night, all of the characters in all of the books I’ve read swim around my head in a mad dance. My head feels like it might burst with words sometimes and then I think that I’ve got years and years of reading still to come and where do all the words go?”

It’s story that will make you nod with recognition, and make you both laugh and cry.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point – this is a quite wonderful collection of stories.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

A Little Stranger

Sarah Waters’ fifth novel, The Little Stranger, opens in rural Warwickshire in 1947. It is a strange time. War is over, but its effects are still being felt, and the world is changing.

Before the war Hundreds House was a grand place. Dr Faraday remembers visiting as a small boy when his mother was one of a veritable army who ensured things ran smoothly.

But when he is called out to see a sick serving girl he finds things much changed. Colonel Ayres, the head of the house, is dead, leaving his widow, a son, who was badly injured in the war, and a daughter. The army of staff is reduced to a single maid and a charwoman, and the family is fighting a losing battle to keep home and finances intact.

For a long time that seemed to be all that there was, and only the quality of the writing and my faith in Sarah Waters kept me turning the pages.

Then finally the real story began.

The first significant incident happens when the new owners of a neighbouring estate visit. They are ill-mannered, mocking the old-fashioned house and hospitality and boasting of the modernity that they will bring to their own home. But one moment that evening will shock them and change the course of their lives.

Was the cause supernatural, or was it something more prosaic?

That question repeats, as strange things keep happening and the Ayres family crumbles.

The Little Stranger is many things. Yes it is, as billed, a ghost story, and though the haunting is not sustained, there are moments of fear, pain and grief as vivid as anything I have read. It is also a wonderful human drama and a compelling portrait of a country and a class system on the brink of change.

What it lacks though is the colour and flamboyance that made Sarah Waters’ earlier novels so beguiling.

That is in large part down to the narrator. Dr Faraday is a dull an unimaginative middle-aged man, who clings to rational explanations for everything. It’s an interesting – and maybe brave – choice and it is a measure of Sarah Waters’ skill that she makes this work as well as she does.

And there is a twist. Not an obvious jolt, but something much more subtle that changes the way that you look at characters, incidents and possibilities.

It made me want to go back and look at things again, and this could well be a book that has much more to offer with subsequent readings.

And the ending? It’s subtle and could be read in more than one way.

The Little Stranger, though maybe not entirely sucessful, was an interesting path for Sarah Waters to try, and I am intrigued to see where she goes next.

Library Loot

I have had an excellent week at the library. Two long awaited reservations arrived ,and I spotted two more gems on the shelves. All are historical, so please come with me on a journey through time:

We start in the 14th century:

The Owl Killers

The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

“England, 1321. Deep in the heart of countryside lies an isolated village governed by a sinister regime of Owl Masters – theirs is a pagan world of terror and blackmail, where neighbour denounces neighbour and sin is punishable by murder. This dark status quo is disturbed by the arrival of a house of religious women, who establish a community outside the village. Why do their crops succeed when village crops fail; their cattle survive despite the plague? But petty jealousy turns deadly when the women give refuge to a young martyr. For she dies a gruesome death after spitting the sacramental host into flames that can’t burn it – what magic is this? Or is the martyr now a saint and the host a holy relic? Accusations of witchcraft and heresy run rife while the Owl Masters rain down hellfire and torment on the women, who must look to their faith to save them from the lengthening shadow of Evil … a shadow with predatory, terrifying talons.”

Karen Maitland’s debut was one of my favourite books of last year and I have been looking forward to this one. Doesn’t it sound wonderful? And isn’t the cover lovely?

And then we travel forwards, to the middle of the 19th century:


McNaughten by Sian Busby

“The winter of 1843 is one of bitter strife for England. The nation is on the brink of ruin and revolution, the government struggling to stand firm against the rising chaos.
Out of this apocalyptic landscape emerges a young Scotsman, Daniel McNaughten. He has been on a journey, a descent into his own despair, mirroring the tribulations of society at large. His journey will end in London, with the death of an apparently innocent man. One freezing day in January, he takes a shot at the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary, Edward Drummond, as he makes his way to Downing Street. The incident rocks the nation. Has the assassin perhaps mistaken Mr. Drummond for the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel? And who is this McNaughten? A dangerous political radical – possibly the agent of an entire network of revolutionaries – or a religious fanatic? Is he a lunatic, or merely a victim of the collective madness that surrounds him?”

I love the period and this is based on a true story I know nothing about.

On now to the early years of the 20th century:

The Crimson Rooms

The Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon

“Evelyn is a young woman who has defied convention to become one of the country’s pioneer female lawyers. Living at home with her mother, aunt, and grandmother, Evelyn is still haunted by the death of her younger brother James in the First World War. Therefore when the doorbell rings late one night and a woman appears, claiming to have mothered James’s child, her world is turned upside down. Evelyn distrusts Meredith at first, but also finds that this new arrival challenges her work-obsessed lifestyle. So far her legal career has not set the world alight. But then two cases arise that make Evelyn realise perhaps she can make a difference. The first concerns woman called Leah Marchant whose children have been taken away from her simply because she is poor. The second, Stephen Wheeler – a former acquaintance of Daniel Breen, her boss – has been charged with murdering his own wife. It is clear to Breen and Evelyn that Wheeler is innocent but he won’t talk. After being humiliated in court, Evelyn is approached by a dashing lawyer called Nicholas Thorne. She is needled by his privileged background and old-fashioned attitudes, but despite being engaged, he cannot seem to resist sparring with this feisty young female. In the meantime, Meredith makes an earth-shattering accusation about James. With the Wheeler case coming to a head, and her heart in limbo, Evelyn takes matters into her own hands.”

Another period I love. I like the sound of the story and I’m hoping to learn a little about how women established themselves in the legal profession.

And finally, a few decades forward, to the years just after the war.

A Little Stranger

A Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

“In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.”

This must be one of the most anticipated books of the year. I was tempted to rush out and buy a copy, but I restrained myself and placed an order at the library instead. It arrived a couple of days ago, reading is well underway and I’ll be writing something at the weekend.

And then, with just a hop, a skip and a jump, we are back in the present day.

Do you like to travel in time? Do you have a favourie period?


Have you read any of these? What did you think of them?

And what did you find in the library this week?

See more Library Loot here.