The most apt word I can think of to describe this book is sumptuous! This is a book to delight the reader with the layers of detail which build a picture of a household in London in the 1920’s. Mrs Wray and her daughter Frances found themselves struggling to make ends meet after the loss of the men during World War I and the solution is to take in some paying guests, their gentrified term for lodgers. With the household rejigged to make space for a couple of rooms the day arrives for Leonard and Lillian Barber to move in. Lily sets about decorating her rooms in her own style while Leonard works away at his job at an insurance company and the household begins to adapt to the new routine. The Wrays meanwhile remain suspended in the disagreeable place between accepting and despising the changes the new occupants bring to the house.
As you would expect from a Sarah Waters novel there is a sapphic element to this tale which has far reaching consequences for a number of the characters so much so that the household becomes embroiled in a court case. The scenes during the investigation made for fascinating reading especially as it was underpinned by research which was used to give a feeling of authenticity and at times my heart was in my mouth as the wheels of justice turned.
The other area of research which shone through although without ever overpowering the story line was the role of women during this age. With those men that had returned from the war often destitute the role of women was at a turning point but for most the freedom to make their own decisions was a long way into the future. Lilian has little to do with her days except to put fripperies up around her rooms while Frances fills her days with the housework that only a few years before would have been performed by servants. Her free time sees her walking to London to visit her old friend who has more independence, having rented some rooms and making money by typing for money. Mrs Wray still makes visits to friends and her worthy causes, showing her determination to carry on as before, but these interactions are marked of earlier times, whereas the younger characters are forging ahead uncertainly and with differing degrees of success into the new age.
All of that is underpinned by the brilliant characters, all from the most minor, to those who hold the spotlight, are exquisitely drawn, the nuances betray a depth makes this a book to savour and I found my reading speed slowing to immerse myself in these details. With no character being all bad, or all good, this book is one that will make you question what you have learnt through Frances’ telling of the tale from her point of view; who really drove the action? What secrets were bought into the unsuspecting Wray household? And maybe most importantly what on earth happened after the book ended. Yes there is an open(ish) ending, not a device I often agree with but this one is clever, it doesn’t smack of laziness or a wish to give each reader the ending they want but mirrors the content of this rich and luxurious book, one of those books which you know will give up even more details on a second read, a definite ‘keeper.’