I’m really not quite sure why I didn’t read this book when it was first published in 2006, an error I only realised when I read the fabulous The Paying Guests last year, as I had read and enjoyed all of her previous books. This was her first departure to a more modern setting, that being the 40s with all the details of London life during the war.
Part One starts in 1947 where we meet the lonely Kay, Viv and Helen who both work in a dating agency, and Viv’s brother Duncan who we find out was imprisoned but what for, we don’t find out until much later. The characters are fantastically painted, I felt that I was on the roof with Viv and Helen exchanging the very edges of their secrets whilst having a cigarette during their lunch break. Likewise the scenes of Duncan working at a factory joining in the banter as best as he can, then returning home to Uncle Horace, gave a real insight into his character. As in all of Sarah Waters novels, there are plenty of homosexual characters, but I wouldn’t say that the book is ‘about’ that, rather it deals with the human emotions of desire, guilt, betrayal and regret, the sexuality of the participants matters little although in this novel we do get a sense of the secrecy and deception that was a necessary part of life at this time.
Part Two then takes us back in time to 1944, with rationing and bombs at their peak we see Kay as a practical ambulance driver whilst Vivian works as a secretary at the Ministry of War and Helen works at the town hall. The changes that have been made in Kay’s life in the intervening years is particularly shocking; in three years she has gone from playing an important role to being reduced to sitting at home watching the world go by from her window.
Part Three takes us further back again to 1941 where we finally learn why Duncan was imprisoned and how the lives of the main characters became intertwined. The three parts as a whole show us the consequences of actions in the past impacting lives in the present in a heart-breaking way.
Knowing the ending, or at least part of it, before you get to the beginning of a story lent this book a peculiar feeling of poignancy, as well as inevitably giving the reader a few ‘ahh’ moments as the actions of our main characters begin to make a little more sense once we know what had happened in the past. This way of revealing the story also meant that I wanted to go back to the beginning, willing the 1947 part to go just that little bit further, to give me some sense of completeness to the character’s lives that hold the promise of a future never to be told.
This isn’t a fast moving book and nor does it have any great mystery, the delight is in the assured writing style, the everyday nuggets that in lesser books I would term padding, but for some reason for this author each scene adds something to the atmosphere that unfolds and so despite being a fairly long book, I certainly didn’t feel it was too long – I was left wanting more. The depiction of a ruined London was so evocative, I could easily imagine myself hearing the bombs and seeing, and smelling the fires that came in their wake. The London streets seen through the eyes of someone walking in the darkness of the blackout had a truly eerie feel to them. As always Sarah Waters has done her research, and for anyone with an interest in this period of history her acknowledgement page contains a huge list of books that she used to make sure the scenes that she so wonderfully bought to life were based on fact.
I still feel that The Paying Guests is my favourite of this author’s books to date, but this is definitely a book that I can quite easily see myself re-reading in the future to further explore the beautiful and often tragic narrative. This isn’t a book for readers who want plenty of action and I did find it got off to a bit of a slow start, but as a whole this is one that I will remember and ponder over for some time to come.