At first it seems to be a story revealing the changes in society in post World War I London of 1922. Frances Wray and her mother, once part of a genteel family living in an elegant Edwardian home, are forced to dismiss their servants, do their own cooking and housework (actually Frances does it all – her mother can't even boil water), and rent out their upper floor to married couple Leonard and Lilian Barber, The Paying Guests of Sarah Waters's novel. The Barbers are roughly the same age as Frances, but from a lower social class. Lilian's flapperish style - kimonos, paper flowers, feathers, beads and tambourines – is a striking contrast to Frances's staid and sober demeanor, although it is gradually revealed that she too led a more bohemian life before her family's reversals forced her back home to her mother.
So would this book be a nuanced examination of the clash of social classes? Decidely not. What starts as character study turns into an action-filled, high tension page-turner which is at once dark, shocking and occasionally comic. I hate spoilers so I'll say no more. Sarah Waters tells a tale that feels totally authentic to its time period but bracingly contemporary.