But even before she’d got the cigarette lit, she closed her eyes, leaned back into her pillow–and suddenly she found herself in an unfamiliar house with crumbling walls. How had she got there? She had no idea. She knew only that she had to keep the place from collapsing. But the task was like torture. The moment she got one wall upright, the next would start to tilt; soon she was rushing from room to room, propping up sagging ceilings, hauling back the slithering treads of tumbling staircases. On and on she went, through all the hours of the night; on and on, without pause, staving off one impossible catastrophe after another. p. 383
The paying guests is a term for lodgers, those who come to rent a home from a landlord. But it’s an ironic term in this case, because Lilian and Leonard Barber will pay in many ways for coming to the home of Miss Wray and her mother. At first I suspected a story resembling Arsenic and Old Lace. “They’ll be poisoned,” I thought, “this unsuspecting couple coming to a perfectly presentable house.”
But there are many ways to be poisoned besides arsenic.
How about love as a deadly poison? Could we substitute the fallout of a scandalous love affair for a fatal draught?
Delicious tensions abound in this novel, between husband and wife, mother and daughter, lover and lover, police and the accused. There is an underlying assumption, that Mrs. Barber’s dalliance could only ever involve a male. How shocking in the 1920’s, how virtually unknown, the fact that lesbian relationship exist.
It wasn’t what I expected, to read of a love affair between two women. It wasn’t even something I enjoyed, compared to the shivers I got while reading The Little Stranger. But if a novel reflects the writer’s soul, it would be unfair to expect something different than a lesbian theme from Sarah Waters.
I wondered if the two women in The Paying Guests would destroy each other as the deed they committed in secret threatened to expose more than their romance. And while their story vacillated between clinging to each other and separating, between innocence and guilt, I compulsively turned the pages to learn of its conclusion.
For what does all of Miss Wray’s cleaning mean? The day in, day out tasks of polishing the floor on her hands and knees, drawing water from a rumbling heater for baths and clearing up, dusting knick-knacks in the parlour while her mother naps? She will be forever scrubbing, but never spotless.