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The Paying Guests

Written by Sarah Waters

Published by Riverhead

Review by Michelle Pretorius




In the tradition of her earlier historical works, such as Tipping the Velvet and The Night Watch, Sarah Waters’s latest novel, The Paying Guests, scrutinizes the British class system and the treatment and restrictions placed on women, especially lesbians. Waters gives the reader a claustrophobic view of daily life in 1922 London, a city whose population is still reeling from the devastating effects of World War I. We experience this world through the eyes of Frances Wray, a twenty-six-year-old “upper-class” spinster. Frances and her mother are left almost penniless after the death of her father, who had made a number of ill-advised investments, and are forced to take in lodgers, referred to as paying guests, in order to make ends meet.

A section of the house is converted into an apartment and a working-class couple, Leonard and Lillian Barber, move into the Wray home. Frances and her mother are painfully aware of the Barbers’ presence, noting every creak and social taboo, seeing it as an invasion they must endure in order to survive. Waters humorously conveys the discomfort of both classes in their confined environment while highlighting the superficial deference that the status of the upper class confers. The characters are grounded in the period by vivid details and nuanced speech patterns, with which Waters expertly illuminates their different experiences in British society.

A friendship develops between Frances and Lillian. The two women spend time together during the day while Leonard, a clerk, is at work and Mrs. Wray volunteers at church. Lillian and Leonard’s marriage is not a happy one, and the cracks soon become visible to Frances. She is also aware of her growing physical attraction to Lillian. It is only after Frances reveals her past love affair with a woman that Lillian reciprocates these feelings. Waters is known for her frank portrayal of lesbian sex, but, far from being gratuitous, the explicit scenes in The Paying Guests aid in the depiction of two people who are in love and who face overwhelming odds because of their gender and sexual orientation.

Lillian discovers she is pregnant just as the two lovers decide to break away from their constrictive circumstances to start a life together. The pregnancy sets a chain of events in motion, culminating in a trial that puts the two women’s continued relationship in doubt. Through the descriptions of the criminal investigation and court proceedings, Waters holds a mirror up to current sensationalism while delivering an engrossing glimpse into the machinations of the criminal justice system in Britain at the time.

Waters mercilessly tightens the screws on her two main characters at every turn, placing the implications of their love in this time period under a magnifying glass. The Paying Guests is an engrossing read that makes us conscious of how far the equal rights movement has come and of the freedoms we too often take for granted.


Michelle Pretorius was born and raised in South Africa and has lived in London, New York and the Midwest. She holds an MFA from Columbia College Chicago and is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at Ohio University.

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By Michelle Pretorius

And then, they crossed the line. Pop. A gunshot rang out. A girl screamed as the limp body of her 13-year old brother fell. School children froze, the stones that they had picked up to fling at the police still in their hands. The ones who had adhered to the directive of a “peaceful” march stood dazed, confusion marring their youthful faces. Pop. The second gunshot ignited a fervor, defying reason, ignoring fear. The children surged forward. Outnumbered, their fear augmented by the hate of thousands, the white men in their police fatigues let the dogs loose.

Placards proclaiming, “Down with Afrikaans,” and, “If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu,” fell to the ground. The bearers reached for bricks and trashcans, anything they could use to defend themselves against the beasts. An Alsatian’s growl turned to a yelp as the first stone hit its side, it’s body failing under the assault. The children’s frenetic rage converged on the dumb animal, bashing it to a bloody pulp. A boy of no more than ten lifted an empty Coke bottle above his head. Pop. The bottle fell from his hands, blood spreading where the bullet had ripped his chest. He looked disbelievingly at the dog, quietly falling next to it. His companions dispersed, their eyes wide with fear. This was not supposed to happen. This was not how this day was meant to end.

The law was passed two years before. No more Xhosa, no more Zulu. Instruction in black schools was to be given in Afrikaans and English only. Teachers showed up to class with Afrikaans dictionaries, trying to teach their subjects in a language they themselves could barely speak.

A Black man may be trained to work on a farm or in a factory,” the deputy minister of Bantu Education, Punt Janson, proclaimed. “He may work for an employer who is either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking. Why should we now start quarreling about the medium of instruction among the black people? No, I have not consulted them and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.”

Jacob had felt the mood change as the screws were tightened one more notch, his own resentment burning. They had rallied early that morning. As unsuspecting students showed up for school, they were told by the Student’s Representative Council Action Committee that today would be the day of protest, kept secret to catch the police unaware. They would march to other schools in the township, gain strength in numbers, make their voices heard. No, their parents didn’t know, but the older generation had become complacent, beaten down by so many years of oppression that they would not fight any more.

Once the march started, they had found their way blocked by the police. But peace held. The procession rerouted, taking, “Nkosi Sikilelel’ iAfrika,” as their anthem, a sense of elation as they sang it over and over, a mantra of hope, their number growing, joined by township gangsters and brave adults. “God bless Africa, let its horn be raised, listen to our prayers, Lord bless us, we are its family.”

But then the line was crossed. Automatic rifle shots rang like hail hitting the roofs of the shacks during spring storms. Government buildings and school buses burned, symbols of the oppressor that took their land, their dignity, their power. The violence only receded with nightfall as women searched the streets for their children, the day’s events punctuated by raw inconsolable wails.

Jacob felt nauseous as he looked at the rows of bodies on the ground, covered by newspapers because there weren’t enough sheets. He had not allowed himself to think or feel, only react, running for shelter from the tanks that roamed Soweto. Leaning against the wreckage of a car to catch his breath, he noticed the body of a white man. Around his neck hung a hastily-drawn board reading, “BEWARE AFRIKANERS.” Jacob stepped closer. He recognized the man, a social worker in the township, always good for a laugh or to bum a smoke. He stared into the man’s glassy blue eyes. It felt unreal to him, this thing that had happened. He never thought that they would be able to strike back. All his life he had believed that the white man was untouchable, yet here one of them lay. He reached out to touch the man’s cold cheek, make sure he wasn’t dreaming.

Pop. A hot pain seared through Jacob’s left side and he fell on top of the social worker. Pop. Dust rose up a few feet ahead of him. Pop. Jacob rolled off the body and sidled under the car, his instinct for survival trumping the pain. Pop. His leg felt warm and wet, but he waited, too frightened to move. Pop. Pop. Shots fired, not at him this time, but in the distance. The nearest building was a sink-plate outhouse. As soon as he was sure they had moved on he crawled over to it, thankful for the cover of rapidly descending darkness. Let it end, please God, he thought as he closed the flimsy door behind him and sank to the floor, the dank stench enveloping him. Just for tonight, let the slaughter stop.

Jacob didn’t know how long he lay on the outhouse floor before the two women found him. Too weak to stand on his own, they hoisted him between them and carried him to the hospital. A dry blood trail led from the emergency room entrance to the intake desk. A gurney wheeled past them, the face of its occupant covered. Jacob felt dizzy, clinging to the side of the desk. The confusion of bodies and doctors distorted in his fever dream, mashing into one being, an abstract monster, like the painting in his father’s study, red and undulating and unforgiving.

“I am Jacob Morgan,” he managed to tell the creature as it put its arms around him. “You give me muti, fix me good, okay?” The red thing’s lips moved, but he couldn’t hear what it was saying.

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he was in a hospital bed, his left side throbbing with a warm pain that extended all the way to his stomach. His mother’s careworn face floated in front of him. She wore a black beret and her good Sunday dress. He thought it funny that she had dressed up. The ward was filled with beds, identical to his, their occupants bandaged and beaten down, adults hovering at their sides, their expressions mirroring his mother’s.

“Jacob?” She was crying.

“He’s all right, Prudence.” His father put his hands on her shoulders.

“We scared those Dutchmen lekker.” Jacob forced the words through parched lips, ignoring the look in his father’s eyes. He had watched his dad deal with the apartheid government for years, defending activists, trying to remain civil, and for what? They, the youth of Soweto, did more to put a dent in the armor of the white man in one day, than his dad had done in a lifetime. They had shown them that they would fight back.

“What you did was stupid. You don’t think.” His dad pointed a finger up at the sky. “You hear that?” Jacob became aware of a constant drone. “The police are coming down on Soweto. The only thing you’ve accomplished was to give them an excuse to fire on us without asking questions.” His dad’s anger spilled into white-hot stupor. He turned his head, clinging to his mother as if she was the only thing keeping him standing.

“No more, Jacob. Please.” His mother reached for his father, an intimate gesture that made Jacob uncomfortable.

“We have to get you out of here.” His father wiped his eyes. “The police are taking names of everyone that was treated for bullet wounds.”

Jacob let his mother help him up, dress him, as if he was a little boy.

“I bought a train ticket.” His father stood by the door, hands restless in his pockets, eying everyone that walked into the ward. “Tessa will take you for a while.”

“I’m not going, Pa. People have to stand together. Not chaile like rabbits. We’ve had enough.”

“I’m not going to allow you to toyi-toyi and be target practice for those animals.”

“Please, Jacob.” His mom clutched his hands. “Don’t break your mamma’s heart.”

“If I’m in danger, so are you.”

“We’ll be all right.” His dad had the, “and that’s final,” look about him, a steel door lowering between them. Jacob knew arguing would be useless.

A nurse rushed into the ward and handed his dad paperwork. “We documented it as an abscess,” she said.

Ke a leboha.” His dad had a look of earnest gratitude on his face.

Jacob leaned on his mother, while his father led the way. Outside, the air was hazy and thick with smoke. Riot police manned the perimeter, rifles gripped in front of them, scowling at a crowd of retreating stone throwers, the smell of teargas lingering. Jacob’s packed suitcase perched on the back seat of the VW beetle and he sidled up next to it. His father navigated past the crowds, taking narrow back alleys between shacks and government housing. People spilled in and out of liquor stores and shops, running off with their loot before a bullet had the chance to stop them.

His father jerked the wheel as a stone bounced off the windshield. Jacob crouched behind the front seat. His mother reached for him across the divide and he clung to her hand, fear breaking through the fuzzy reality of the past day, his breath coming in shallow rasps, his pain forgotten. The stones became a horse’s hooves pounding in rhythm with his heart. His father screamed. The car skidded to a halt. His mother’s grip grew limp. Her body slouched forward.

A police officer flung the door open.“What you doing?” he shouted. “Get out of the car.”

His dad raised his hands, his face pale with terror. He addressed the young policeman in Afrikaans.

“My wife, Sir. She’s hurt. We have to get her to a hospital.”

“You stand over there. Move.”

His father got out and moved away from the car, his hands behind his head. The policeman leaned over the seat.

Jacob felt something explode in him as the man touched his mother. “No!” He reached over the seat to stop the man.

The policeman punched him in the face, a sharp blow that threw him back onto his suitcase. “Want to die today, kaffir?

“Please, Officer. Please. He’s my son. Only a boy,” his father pleaded form the sideline. Jacob had never seen him like that, scared, begging, raw fear forcing him to his knees. He addressed Jacob in Sotho, pleading with him to remain calm, to do what the police said. Jacob slowly opened the car door, hatred raging in his veins, his hands shaking behind his head, the stitches in his side painfully straining while the policeman trained the gun at his head.

“Please, Officer.” His father cupped his hands to the white man like a beggar. “My wife, she needs a doctor.”

The policeman sneered. “What she needs is a morgue. If your son’s not careful, he’ll join her.”

“Please, Baas. Please. We do not want trouble. We want to get away. Please, Baas.

Jacob looked at his father with his knees in the dirt, his pride gone, his dignity gone. It was too much. The pressure cooker inside Jacob forced a hole through his heart. Even as he told himself not to cry in front of these men, sobs of anger, and grief, and shame, convulsed his body.

The policeman focused his attention on a column of smoke in the distance. Through his tears, Jacob noticed the look of embarrassment on his face. So they had a conscience, these men. Perhaps they were even human.

“The coloured hospital in Eldorado Park is open,” the policeman said, his gun still trained on Jacob. “You go there.”

Soweto writhed in fire as they drove away. Jacob reached for his mother’s hand in the front seat. It was still warm, the faint line of death barely crossed. But from this, he knew, there would be no return.


Michelle was born and raised in South Africa where she received a B.A. in Theater Arts at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. She has lived in London, New York and the Midwest and currently calls Chicago home, where she recently graduated with an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Word Riot, Everyday Fiction, Hypertext Magazine, The Copperfield Review, and others. http://www.michellepretorius.com


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Michael Simms

By Michelle Pretorius

Michael Simms is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Autumn House Press. He is the author of five collections of poetry: Black Stone, The Happiness of Animals, The Fire-Eater, Migration, and Notes on Continuing Light, as well as the co-author of The Longman Dictionary and Handbook of Poetry and has has taught at The University of Iowa, Southern Methodist University, The Community College of Allegheny County, Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University, and Duquesne University.

Michelle Pretorius: What are the advantages a writer gains by choosing a small press like Autumn House Press over a larger one?

Michael Simms: The independent non-profit presses are now carrying the banner of American literature. With very few exceptions, the large commercial presses have stopped publishing high quality contemporary literature.

M.P.: Can you talk about some of the things you look for as editor’s in the fiction and poetry you’re aiming to publish? Is there a set criteria?

M.S.: I am the Editor-in-Chief and the poetry editor. Our fiction editors are John Fried and Sharon Dilworth. Our nonfiction editors are Sheryl St. Germain, Margaret Whitford, and Adrienne Block. That being said, there are certain editorial processes and choices, as well as a general aesthetic, which apply to everything we publish. We look for writing that is well-crafted and appealing to a literate, non-specialist reader.

M.P.: You recommended Drift and Swerve by Samuel Ligon to me, what other books in your catalog would you recommend to someone as most representative of Autumn House?

M.S.: In fiction, I would recommend New World Order by Derek Green. In poetry, I would immodestly recommend the new edition of The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, which I edited. In individual collections of poetry, I would recommend Blood Honey by Chana Bloch. In nonfiction, I would recommend The Archipelago, a travel book by Robert Isenberg.

M.P.: Autumn House uses a competition to select new books for publication. What are the advantages in that for the press? Is there a difference in the quality of work you receive?

M.S.: Originally, we started using the contests as a way to manage the large number of unsolicited submissions we were receiving. Having a set of guidelines and an annual deadline streamlined the screening process. Charging a submission fee encouraged people to send us only their finished manuscripts and to read our guidelines carefully. The fee also enabled us to pay our screeners and to recruit nationally known writers such as Naomi Shihab Nye and Stewart O’Nan to judge the contests. But the most important benefit of accepting submissions this way is that it generates enough money to publish the winning manuscript, give an advance to the author, pay for a reading tour, and advertise the book. Without the contest model, we could not produce quality books and give them the support they deserve.

M.P.: You have published books of poetry that were published by independent presses and have therefore been on both sides of the process. How did the experience inform your own work with authors?

M.S.: I was very fortunate as a writer to have wise and supportive editors. Mark Doty at Blue Buildings, Gorden Anderson at Longman, James Anderson at Breitenbush were among my editors. I’ve tried to emulate them in building Autumn House and working with authors.

M.P.: Once an author is published with Autumn House, do you aim for multiple book contracts?

M.S.: Whenever possible, we like to have a longterm relationship with the author. Once we’ve published a book by an author, we want them to share future manuscripts with us. Many of our authors – for example, Jo McDougall, Philip Terman, Ed Ochester, Sue Ellen Thompson and Sheryl St. Germain have published more than one book with us.

M.P.: How many people are involved in the decision making process for selecting manuscripts? What are their roles and what is the process a manuscript goes through until it is published?

M.S.: We have three annual full-length book contests at present – Poetry, Fiction, and Nonfiction. In addition, we have the Coal Hill Chapbook Contest. In general, the manuscripts are processed by our interns, then there is a quick read to eliminate the manuscripts that are obviously too weak to compete. Then the editors start the hard work of reading manuscripts to find the best ones. Then the best ones, usually 15-35 finalists, go to the judge to pick a winner. After the winners are chosen, we choose several additional finalists to publish, filling out our list.

M.P.: Do you accept manuscripts that still need rewrites? Will you hold onto promising manuscripts or do you pass if it’s not ready as is?

M.S.: If we’ve already published an author, then we will often work with that author in developing a new manuscript for publication. This process involves a great deal of staff time, so we are selective about which manuscripts we will help develop.

M.P.: How do you work with those authors you decide to publish? Are they involved in the entire process, from revising to marketing to distribution, or are they kept on the outside?

M.S.: We usually like to involve authors in every phase of the publishing process.

M.P.: What percentage of advance copies that you send out receive reviews?

M.S.: We send out 50 to 100 copies of each title as review copies.

M.P.: Does your press have a standardized market plan or is it based on the individual writer?

M.S.: Based on the individual writer.

M.P.: What are your goals in terms of marketing fiction that you publish? How does your intended audience fit into these plans?

M.S.: Our main concern is to publish the best books we possibly can. A secondary goal is to sell enough copies to continue our work. Author appearances — i.e. readings, signings, interviews, classroom visits, etc. — is essential to selling books and building a literary reputation.

M.P.: After rewrites and proofreading, is the author involved in the publishing process in any way?

M.S.: We try to involve the author in every stage of the publishing.

M.P.: Are your contracts geared for multi-book projects?

M.S.: No. We publish one book at a time. This is the only way we can maintain the high quality of writing we require.


Michelle Pretorius was born in South Africa and has lived in London, New York and the Midwest. She is a graduate student in Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago and has been published in The Copperfield Review and The Columbia Review Lab.

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