first book of the year (and one that it's going to be hard to top). And now I've read another Waters novel, The Little Stranger and thoroughly enjoyed it. Apparently, she likes exploring different time periods in her work. The Paying Guests is set in London in 1922, and much of the story is set in motion by events relating to World War I. The Little Stranger follows the Second World War, and the deprivation and altered economic states of so many Brits form the backdrop for the tale.
The narrator is a doctor in a small country town who comes to care for the family of the local squire. When Dr. Faraday was a child in the town, the Ayres family was at the top of the social heap, the family that hosted the annual fete and gave out medals to the promising local youngsters (like the doctor himself). Now, their fortune has evaporated and their house, lands, and future are all in a desperately precarious state. The father is dead, the son is damaged, physically and mentally, by the war, and the daughter has returned home to help try to keep the ancestral home from crumbling around their ears.
The horror of their declining fortune is mirrored in a series of strange events that begin, slowly, to occur, gathering force as the novel progresses. There is a sense of growing horror, a constant feeling of unease. Waters has a remarkable ability to slowly, slowly move the dreadful tale along. The crumbling home, the threatening weather, the local gossips -- it all combines to create a feeling of awfulness, of decay, of terrible danger. It's a compelling and creepy web she weaves, a web that reminded me of the tense and fearful feeling I get from reading Wilkie Collins, or Emily Bronte. I can't think of another writer who has the sense of pacing that Waters possesses. Even when almost nothing is happening, you can feel the darkness gathering outside the window. And the slow, inevitable creep of tragedy keeps you turning pages, even while holding your breath. The fact that she is using gothic horror to spotlight economic and social themes just makes her writing more impressive.
I've already got my next Waters novel: I bought Fingersmith this week.