It’s 1922, and Frances Wray and her mother are struggling financially, living in genteel poverty. Frances’s two brothers died in the War, with her father following shortly afterwards. Upon his death they discovered that he’d lost most of their money in bad investments. Their staff have gone, and Frances has to do everything to keep their large house clean, as well as cook, and deal with the household budget. They’ve cut every corner they can, but the time has time to do the unthinkable – take in lodgers, or “paying guests”, as they’re known in desirable Champion Hill.
Enter Mr and Mrs Barber; Leonard and Lilian. They’re part of the new, upwardly mobile “clerk class” (a phrase that was new to me.) Leonard has a good job in assurance with prospects; Lilian doesn’t work now she’s married, as was usual then. At first Frances intends to avoid their lodgers whenever possible, but she is lonely, and quickly becomes fascinated by the Barbers, with a friendship with Lilian developing. Of course, it being a Sarah Waters book, it won’t surprise anyone when I say their friendship develops into more than that. But a violent incident will put all relationships under strain, familial and romantic, as does the ensuing court case. And what are Lilian’s true feelings?
What can I say? I loved this book. I loved Frances, who I thought was coping admirably in getting on with a life she’d never intended nor wanted. She’s a “good egg”, as they used to say. No wonder when she gets a shot at happiness she grabs it with both hands. But it seems as though Frances is destined never to be happy, as the shocking and violent incident threatens to rip all joy from her life, not for the first time…
I actually felt bereft when I’d finished the book. I’d have happily read another 200 pages on the housekeeping habits of the 1920s, and I don’t think there’s another author I could say that about! I know many readers prefer Waters’ earlier, Victorian-set novels, but I feel more comfortable in the 20th century, and I love the old-fashioned phrases. Many of them remind me of the Chalet School books I loved as a child. I have to declare The Night Watch as my favourite Sarah Waters, though. Despite having this book since the day it came out, I delayed reading it until the Christmas holidays – simply because I wanted to savour it, and I knew it’d be a long wait for the next Sarah Waters book (this one was released four years on from The Little Stranger, her last novel – which I did enjoy, but Waters has set such high standards for her work that I ultimately felt it didn’t work as well as it might.)
I know reviews of this have been mixed, both in the UK broadsheets and on the blogosphere, but an average work by Sarah Waters exceeds the best work of most authors writing today. This is a short review, and I’ve puzzled over why that’s the case for some time, but I think it’s because I’ve nothing bad to say about it. Perhaps the pacing of it was slightly uneven, but that’s a tiny quibble, and I’m being very nitpicky even mentioning it. The review’s short because, to re-iterate, I loved this book. It’s as simple as that.