We need to talk about Sarah Waters.
True, she’s been repeatedly shortlisted for major prizes and her novels are anticipated by hundreds of thousands of fans. But don’t you primarily think of her as the author either of the racy lesbian classic Tipping the Velvet (1998), whose televised protagonists had certain unforgettable props, or of more recent novels – The Night Watch (2006), The Little Stranger (2009) – that read like half-forgotten wartime works: devastating, low-key?
We all know what great fiction looks like: it requires broad canvases, imaginative long-jumps – not empathy, microcosms, quiet ventriloquism. And, most of all, it isn’t about people in bed, or at their kitchen tables: their pain and shame and secret lives. So it’s easy to dismiss Waters as merely another Elizabeth Taylor or Iris Murdoch, whose frustrated middle-class women and domestic settings relegate their work, we are repeatedly and wrongly informed, to minor classics.
Even those of us who know Watersland well, its slyness and darkness, its palpable seams, may at first mistake this sixth novel, The Paying Guests, for something quieter, smaller, more easily reviewed. There may be hints – the glint of sex, the creak of danger – but so absorbing is her storytelling, so vivid her characters, that one can temporarily forget that this is not an exhumed relic, or a modern pastiche, where passion is unvoiced and the worst that can happen is loneliness and despair.
That is, until one suddenly emerges, blinking, remembering into whose hands you have fallen – those of one of the greatest modern novelists, whose work is full of deceit and stomach-lurching slips into chaos, lives changed utterly by weakness or delay.
The year in which the novel is set, 1922, was not a good one: men dead or jobless, women expected to “fit into their role” as providers of full Sunday lunches, washers of hall floors, makers-do. The prosperous were broke, the class system was in confusion. This is the problem facing Frances Wray and her mother; fallen gentry, forced to take in lodgers. EM Forster would surely have recognised Leonard and Lilian, a young couple of the “clerk class” whose accents and ornaments and relatives sit uncomfortably in the Wrays’ ultra-respectable world.
You think you know where it is all going. As in every Waters novel you will be hooked within a page, whether by the clarity of detail – the smell of black dye, “Dickensian teeth”, the squeak of flesh on bath enamel – or the compassion: parents preparing “ill-cooked little meals”; the prisoner better nourished in custody than at home. And when affection dawns between Frances and Lilian, there are intimations of future drama in the “alchemy” of the moment of connection, or the way that an illicit, class-transgressing friendship can expand: “the caution unravelled, every time”.
This being Watersland, sex is dangerously present: as loose threads “like coarse black hairs”; in a house producing dust “as flesh oozes sweat” or a man’s “blazing torso”. Frances is not the “whiskery spinster daughter” that women like her are assumed to be: “she rolled a neat little fag … she liked to smoke like this, naked in the cool sheets, with only the hot red tip of a cigarette to light her fingers in the dark.” And any passion – lust, madness, violence – has a life of its own; all very well to invite it in, but how do you control it?
Here the next layer of brilliance is revealed. The nested coincidences like Russian dolls, the misunderstandings on which our lives can tilt, the infinitely regrettable moments: Waters makes us ache for every one. Whether it’s Mrs Dalloway’s lost love or Thérèse Raquin’s burgeoning horror, The Paying Guests reminds us of every great novel we’ve gasped or winced at, or loudly urged the protagonists through, and it does not relent.
And this is when the constraints of a review fail one. There is too much here to convey in brief, or without revealing the switchback twists that make all Waters’ novels dazzling. She can, it seems, do everything: the madness of love; the squalor of desire; the coexistence of devotion and annoyance; “the tangle of it all”.
At her greatest, Waters transcends genre: the delusions in Affinity (1999), the vulnerability in Fingersmith (2002), the undercurrents of social injustice and the unexplained that underlie all her work, take her, in my view, well beyond the capabilities of her more seriously regarded Booker-winning peers. But The Paying Guests is the apotheosis of her talent; at least for now. I have tried and failed to find a single negative thing to say about it. Her next will probably be even better. Until then, read it, Flaubert, Zola, and weep.
The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters, Virago, RRP£20/Riverhead, RRP$28.95, 576 pages
Charlotte Mendelson is author of ‘Almost English’ (Picador)
Illustration by Luke Waller