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‘The Paying Guests’

by Sarah Waters

Riverhead, 566 pp., $28.95

Dread seeps through the first half of Sarah Waters’ “The Paying Guests” like fog on a London evening. Like the novelist’s masterfully creepy ghost story, her 2009 novel “The Little Stranger,” this tale is set in postwar England. This time it’s 1922, and there’s a sense of despair in the quiet neighborhood where Frances Wray lives with her widowed mother. “The War took all our best men,” wails a neighbor, “and with them went everything that’s decent and lawful … ”

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Alone together in a once-bustling house (Frances’ father died abruptly, leaving behind disordered finances; her brothers both died in the war), they must take in lodgers to make ends meet, and in the opening pages we meet the new arrivals. Leonard and Lillian Barber are a young couple with questionable taste in decorating — as they settle in, their rooms begin to look “as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick.”

Their relationship seems not entirely happy; something darker seems to be hiding behind a screen of unremarkable conversation. The awkwardness of sharing a house with strangers jumps off the page. You hear every creak in the floor and you sense how very crowded the rooms suddenly feel — and that something terrible is about to happen.

We soon learn that Frances, who is in her mid-twenties, is a lesbian recovering from a badly ended relationship with the bohemian Christina. (“I had the love wrung out of me,” she says.) She’s lonely; keeping house for her vague, faded mother is excruciatingly dull, but she has no other options.

Though she’s uncomfortable with Leonard — he’s a bit too pleased with himself, “a cock among hens” — things soon begin to stir between Lillian and Frances. “The Paying Guest” becomes the story of a convert, passionate affair; one that we (and Lillian) know can’t possibly end well. Indeed: midway through the book, off we go on another kind of story.

“The Paying Guests” is long and it starts off slowly, and I wouldn’t blame a reader who put the book aside after a hundred pages or so. But keep going: Waters reels us in, piling up detail after detail, painting a picture of Frances, a character who, like the postwar city she lives in, doesn’t know what the rules are anymore.

Told from her point of view, caught together with Lillian in first a dream and then a nightmare, the book becomes a page-turner. You find yourself racing through, wondering how on Earth all this will turn out, worrying about how these two lost, vulnerable women can possibly emerge unscathed.

Along the way, despite the galloping pace, Waters’ writing is a pleasure, and the bits and pieces of a very specific time and place paint a rich picture — the meager meals, the “puddle-colored” gowns, the High Street where the air “was soupy with smells,” the giddy joy of a roller-skating outing, after which “it was something worse than sad” to rejoin “the commonplace, unwheeled afternoon.”

And her depiction of lost love — between Frances and Christina — is deeply moving; they embrace, “their two hearts thudding like fists on the opposite sides of a bolted door.”

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.