Thursday, February 13, 2014

Honor among thieves ...

Last night, I finished Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.  Unlike my other year-to-date books, I have read this author before.  So, I knew what to expect, more or less.  

If you know anything of Waters, you have probably heard her described as Dickens with lesbians.  And thieves, and shysters, and all manner of unsavory characters. In fact, fingersmith is an antiquated term for thief or pickpocket.   

If you've read her books before, you also know she can write the saddest stories.  Affinity may qualify as the very saddest book I have ever read.  Waters has a penchant for writing about very vulnerable women being made miserable, and this book is no exception.  The two main female protagonists are victimized in both the same and different ways throughout.  

The first two-thirds of the book are a work of art.  So much tension.  One girl (with help) sets out to scam the other in a particularly horrible way.  But, the tables are reversed and the scammee turns out to be the scammer.  Oh, and the two manage to fall in love while plotting each other's downfall.  

The first third describes the scam, over a period of months, from Sue's viewpoint.  The second third describes it from Maud's.  It is incredibly eerie to read the same sequence of events from differing viewpoints, and see how Sue's perception is both more and less accurate than Maud's, though Maud of course knows more about the true motivation behind the scenes.  

These sections deserve five out of five stars.  It's after Maud is taken, as a prisoner more or less, to Sue's old home that the book falls flat to me.  The villainy, and the absurd chain of events that inspire it, is taken to lengths that become unbelievable.  The desperation and ill treatment of both Maud and Sue goes on for too long and in too much detail with too little purpose (unless Waters' purpose is to expose the horrors of Victorian insane asylums, in which case you should just read Affinity and be done with it), the momentum drags.  

The secondary characters never show depth. Maud's uncle is a very evil caricature.  Richard might be fascinating, but we never find out.  The various young boys exist just to perform necessary functions in the plot (Sue has to get out of the madhouse somehow).  

I am actually surprised there's a vaguely happy ending, but there's not enough light at the end of the tunnel to make you feel better about the trip because, while Sue and Maud reunite, we only see them happy for about one page.  For pete's sake, we follow Sue wandering around Briar looking for Maud for longer than we see their reconciliation.   

This book could very fairly be qualified as a horror story - one of the most horrific kinds, one that might easily have happened.  Not all of it, in its entirety, but the pieces: how very very powerless women could be in Victorian England, how limited personal freedom could be, and how little recourse of any sort was available.  How easy it was to be declared mad.  How few options the poor had.  All of the terrible tricks and cheats that people pulled.

  Final call: 

(and maybe a half)

Read this one and shiver, but be prepared to lose the magic toward the end.    


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