The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, narrated by Juliet Stevenson

I think The Paying Guests came to me at the wrong time in my life. I vividly remember huddling in front of my tiny bedroom television as a teenager, completely awed by the concept of Tipping the Velvet. There was Keeley Hawes, my massive secret crush from Spooks, kissing a woman on national television. That was such a huge deal for teenage-me that I can’t possibly describe how much The Paying Guests would have meant to me back then. But as an adult, spoiled by the abundance of readily-accessible queer media now available to me, it just didn’t quite hit the mark.

Here we follow Frances, a single twenty-something in post WW1 England. Living with her mother in a house too roomy and too expensive to maintain, the pair are forced to take in lodgers to stay afloat. Enter the Barbers, a clerk-class couple whose effect on their lives will be far-reaching and profound.

I began The Paying Guests listening to the Audible narration by Juliet Stevenson, but quickly became drawn into the story, and so transitioned to the Kindle version in order to read faster. I switched back and forth as I went along, when normally I’d pick a format and stick to it. Stevenson’s narration brought such life to the words that I could hear her tone even when reading on the Kindle. Her male voices had a touch of ridiculousness to them, and Mrs Barber sounded frankly simple for a good portion of the beginning, but Stevenson has a very easy voice to listen to – lovely to switch on and close my eyes to at the end of a long working day.

The real problem is that the story is almost unrelentingly dismal and dreary, to the point that it begins to feel like a drudge to wade through. Waters captures emotions resoundingly well, and I could relate to Frances in some highly unpleasant ways. After a while it all becomes a grind, with an increasing air of claustrophobia. If that’s a tone that appeals to you and you don’t mind increasingly ramped up melodrama, then there’s every chance The Paying Guests will work for you, but for me I think it will prove forgettable.

[Read from 2-10 July 2016]

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