Sarah Waters – Affinity
In a world where twenty-seven year old women are called “spinsters” and they aren’t allowed to study further, despite being inclined towards academia, where they still need their mother’s permission to carry out certain activities, and where they’re bound by society’s rules and regulations, this story is about a woman desperately trying to find her place and her footing while her siblings are getting married, having babies and moving ahead.
It’s also a story about another woman, a spiritualist, who has been imprisoned due to her involvement in an affair which led to the unfortunate demise of one of her clients. She blames it on the spirits who she interacts with, but there isn’t any evidence in her favour.
Set in London in the 1870s, this book is about two women: Selina, the prisoner (and spiritualist) and Margaret, the Lady Visitor at the prison who is trying to overcome an “illness.”
Early on in the book, Margaret’s visit to Millibank Prison are more about meeting Selina (who she’s never met before), than the other prisoners. Selina, who communicates with various spirits from the prison cell as well, interacts with Margaret’s father who passed away two years previously. As they form a special spiritual bond – a result of loneliness and despondence – they start sharing the details of their past (and their present), which brings them closer together, leading Margaret to believe that Selina is her “affinity.”
One sympathises with Margaret, wonders whether Selina is really a spiritualist or not (well, I did – I don’t really have believe in spirits being able to interact with humans via various media), and dreads the prison – which essentially could be a character in itself. Dark and gloomy, with endless passages, odours, wards, and extremely strict (almost inhumane) matrons who patrol the wards and punish the prisoners for their crimes.
As I’ve come to expect with Sarah Waters’ novels, there’s a breathtaking plot twist, which just leaves the reader gripped to the book, long after they’ve turned the last page. The book is written in interleaving chapters of the present and the past: the present is Margaret’s voice, writing in her diary, and the past is Selina’s, presumably writing in her diary as well. Thus, the whole book is presented to us from the eyes of the two protagonists, and one does start seeing things from their points of view. It’s easy to relate to them, sympathise with their predicaments, and hope for a “happily ever after” that’s only ever seen in fairy tales.
While this book is no Fingersmith (I doubt Waters will be able to re-do that kind of magic), it is still immense in terms of character development and scene setting. It’s probably my second favourite book by Waters (although I still have Tipping The Velvet to go). I’ve read/heard many comments saying Waters is at her best while writing about the Victorian period, and as things stand, I’m bound to agree.
Have you read Affinity? Where do you think it stands amidst Sarah Waters’ other novels?
Filed under: Books 2010, Guardian 1000, Historical Fiction, Review, Sarah Waters, Somerset Maughm Award | 9 Comments
Tags: Sarah Waters, Victorian Society