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Lesbian sex, brutal murder and frantic cover-ups don’t tend to go hand in hand with subtle slow-burn storytelling. But that’s exactly the case in Sarah Waters’s captivating new novel, The Paying Guests.

The action starts in London in 1922. Twenty-six-year-old Frances has fallen on hard times. Her two brothers were killed in the war and her father also died suddenly, leaving the once-wealthy family with practically nothing. In an effort to retain their upper-class lifestyle, Frances and her mother decide to take in boarders--or “paying guests” as they euphemistically call them. Enter Leonard and Lilian Barber, young newlyweds hoping to elevate their station in life.

Almost immediately, Frances finds herself entranced by Lilian, who roams the halls in silk kimonos, reading Tolstoy and sighing about her marriage. As for Leonard, well, he’s just a hotbed of male insecurity. Soon the women form a special friendship... and soon that friendship turns into something more taboo. (Cue superbly written sex scenes.)

To say anything more would be a disservice to Waters’s masterful narrative. But suffice it to say that a terrible thing occurs, the women’s relationship is tested and you will be the crazy person staying up until 2 a.m. to see how it all comes together.

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