Sarah Waters – Affinity

31May10

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?

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9 Responses to “Sarah Waters – Affinity”

  1. I’ve read Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith but not Affinity yet, although I am looking forward to reading it at some point. I’m not as keen on reading her WW2 novels, but quite like the Victorian ones.

  2. I haven’t read this one, but thought the plot was the weakest from all the BBC adaptations I’ve seen. I doubt she’ll ever match Fingersmith again.

  3. 3 Karen

    I actually love this one much more than Fingersmith and I would rate it as my second favourite Waters’s novel after The Night Watch. Something about the characters just clicked for me – I couldn’t put it down.

  4. I want to read this now! I enjoyed Fingersmith but haven’t read further…her other books haven’t sounded particularly appealing to me, but I’ve had The Little Stranger recommended frequently.

  5. I really loved The Night Watch which I read last year after reading The Little Stranger (which I also loved). I read Affinity this year and with every book I am more and more impressed with Sarah Waters. I felt the book was much better than the TV adaptation purely because Waters prose is just so magical and her plot structure so clever.

  6. 6 mee

    I’m going to read Tipping the Velvet this year! (I haven’t read any Sarah Waters) I’d love to read Fingersmith first, but the one I own is Tipping the Velvet.

  7. This sounds like a good one! I want to read more Waters–ironically, the one book I have read by her at this point is Tipping the Velvet. I am sure you will enjoy it–both my cousin and I liked it a lot.

  8. 8 kay

    It sounds so good! I keep hearing more and more praise about Waters, and yet I haven’t read her – but I do have two of her books in my TBR pile! Great review; I’ll definitely keep this one in mind if I enjoy the two others!

  9. 9 Vita

    Hmm. Affinity was the novel that invoked the most sense of suspense and atmosphere; not matched until The Little Stranger. It is fizzing -/ no not the right word – more like buzzing like electricity with pent-up emotions. Big on the tone of the novel, less plot -/ though it is a great twist (as always). I would recommend Tipping if you haven’t already read it….. and Tipping is a real romp and not nearly so subtle as perhaps the more genteel Affinity. But my real recommendation is the Little Stranger…. I thought it evoked the era so well and had real underlying menace.

    You were discussing whether SW is only good in her Victorian novels…. well, even though I was disappointed with Nightwatch, The Little Stranger just shows that she can write about any period. Looking forward to the next offering….


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