Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters' Fingersmith, is an energetic romp. It's more like Waters' first novel Tipping the Velvet than her more disturbing second book Affinity which brought her increased acclaim. Fingersmith takes us into the underworld of Victorian London.
It follows the fortunes of two young women, Sue Trinder brought up among the poverty and petty criminals of the Borough, and Maud Lilly, a captive in the luxurious and perverted world of an aristocrat. The plot sweeps the reader along by a story which rivals the best of Dickens and has a hint of Wilkie Collins about it.
Waters, however, has more tricks up her sleeve than a magician and just when you think you've got the measure of her, she'll pull the certainty right from under your feet. Through her three books she continuously subverts our understanding of nineteenth century life and, therefore, the source of many of the moral and social norms that still hold sway today.
If you took your view of Victorian Britain from Dickens, you would think that women then were either swooning or tramps with a face full of warts. Waters gives us fully-rounded female characters from all sections of society who show an amazing facility for doing whatever it takes in the pursuit of love and self-preservation. And if you think that gay and lesbian culture appeared in the 1960s, read these novels and think again.
For me, Affinity is still her best writing so far. It is a disturbing and multi-layered tale of spiritualism, prisons, madness and love, which has the reader on tenterhooks right to the final devastating paragraph. It can be read just for its story and its finely crafted, haunting text. If you want to dig deeper, however, you will find questions about the nature of history, the corseted lives of women and attitudes to mental illness.
Waters started out as an academic writer, completing her PhD thesis on gay and lesbian literature from the late nineteenth century. She also immerses herself in Victorian fiction, which shows in the authentic feel she brings to her own novels. She was born in Wales in 1966, has won the Somerset Maugham Award and was the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year for 2000.
Tipping the Velvet is due to be made into a film by the BBC. It will be interesting to see how close they dare to go to the book and how late at night they'll end up showing it!
Waters says her next novel will not be set in the Victorian age but in the 1940s. In a recent interview with Ron Hogan for BookSense.com she said that she did not want to be typecast and that there's something about writing three books in an era. "They're not a trilogy, but there's still a sense of completion to having written three and then moving on."
(c) Kate Evans 2002