It seems we’ve gone a bit Sarah Waters crazy in this house, three of us currently ploughing our way through her bibliography. My first Sarah Waters was The Little Stranger, which I read a month or so ago for one of my modules and I just – wow. I loved it. No doubt you’ll get sick of my gushing reviews eventually, but guess how much I loved Fingersmith?
So much that, despite having another book to read for Tuesday, I spent my weekend reading this 550 page Victorian lesbian con novel.
Many of you will, like me, have watched the 2005 mini-series with Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy. I’m re-watching it now, as I write this. I remember enjoying it then, despite being twelve years old and not really understanding (or perhaps paying enough attention to) the con element. Not loving the adaptation so much this time.
Waters’s writing style is natural and fluent, thoroughly researched, occasionally laden with notable historical terms but not overmuch, and altogether guides the reader through the text comfortably.
The story starts with Susan Trinder, an orphan, a ‘fingersmith’ – Victorian slang for a thief. As the blurb will tell you, her fate is inextricably linked with that of another orphan, Maud Lilly, who lives out in the country, in the gloomy and quiet Briar House, with her uncle.
Susan is persuaded into a con by a young man who they, in her household, call Gentleman. His plan is to seduce and marry Maud Lilly in an attempt to steal her money, which she will only receive once she is married, and then to have her locked away in a madhouse.
I won’t go into too much more detail about the plot. It has many twists and turns, and Waters is a master at keeping them secret until she wants you to start guessing.
Things I liked
The development of the relationship between Sue and Maud: both put into difficult positions by Gentleman, they seek solace in each other and find it. Yeeah. Victorian lesbian con novel. The love that grows between them, despite the con at the base of their relationship, is pure, spiritual and physical. It’s written skilfully, without any in-your-face THIS IS A LESBIAN BOOK, meaning that, for anyone coming into the historical novel genre with themes of homosexuality for the first time, it is not alienating. It is this light touch that makes Waters so readable and approachable for anyone looking to read this kind of thing.
The different characters themselves: Maud, raised in a madhouse, the conflicted Sue, the rough, motherly Mrs Sucksby, the vicious John Vroom and Dainty, his punchbag. And Gentleman. Cruel, ambitious, clever. Gentleman. Grr.
The overall tone of the book and the style, as mentioned above.
Things I didn’t like
Anyone who has discussed narrative style with me knows I have a strong dislike of first-person present tense narrative. However, in this case it occurs to differentiate between two different narrative voices – part 1 is first person past tense, part 2 first person present with a change of narrator, and part 3 returns to first person past, and the original narrator. So I’ll allow it. Just this once…
There are excruciatingly detailed accounts of the wrongs done to our narrators by other people, lots of physical abuse. I understand its importance to the story and historical accuracy, especially with regard to lunatic asylums, and as a writer I’ve always been one for putting my characters through a lot, but wow. There’s a lot of suffering. I think maybe if I’d read it over a longer period than two days it may not seemed so unrelenting.
Should I read this book?
This is a definite yes from me. But it is pretty chunky, so only if you have the time for it.
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The Book Depository
You can buy the book here: http://www.bookdepository.com/Fingersmith-Sarah-Waters/9781573229722/?a_aid=SpidersLibrary
Because I am trying not to use Amazon in my own half-arsed protest-y way, I’d like to recommend to people that they check out The Book Depository, which is a great, user-friendly site with affordable books ranging from brand new releases to classics, and in many different editions at less-than brand new prices. As I am now officially an affiliate of The Book Depository, I gain a small commission if you use my affiliate link to buy books! Please do check it out, even if you don’t buy anything right now.