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I have heard a lot of good things regarding Sarah Waters and her books have been on my 'to be read' pile for a while. So when I found 'Affinity' on my course reading list I was eager to read it.
'Affinity' tells the story of Margaret Prior, a young woman who is approaching 30 and a future as a spinster. She is recovering from a failed suicide attempt, apparently the result of her father's recent death, and takes up the role of a lady visitor at Millbank Prison. Whilst visiting the prison Margaret is drawn to the quiet, enigmatic Selina Dawes who has been imprisoned for fraud and assault. It emerges that Selena is a spiritualist and claims that the crime she was convicted of was actually committed by a spirit. Throughout the novel the two characters' relationship develops and through Margaret's diary entries we feel the intense feelings she develops for Selena, while Selena's diary entries give us details about the events that led up to her imprisonment. Parallels are drawn between Margaret's life 'imprisoned' in her home and Selena being imprisoned in Millbank. The question arises as to whether Selina is really able to contact spirits or whether she is merely a fraud.
The imagery in the novel is excellent. The descriptions of Millbank Prison really add to the atmosphere of the book and the prison becomes almost a character in its own right. We are also introduced to a number of other inmates of the prison and the descriptions of prison life seem very realistic, the bleakness of their lives really comes across as do the stark realities of Victorian prison life.
While I found the novel slightly slow and at times repetitive the ending came as a shock to me. As it progressed I found it a difficult book to put down as I really felt for Margaret and her sense of imprisonment in her life came through perfectly. It also gives an interesting look at Victorian spiritualism as we are introduced to characters who seek out Selena's help to contact dead loved ones.
The description on the back of the book claims that 'By the time it all begins to matter, you'll find yourself desperately wanting to believe in magic.' and I found this to be exactly how I felt.
I would certainly recommend this book but it is certainly not a lighthearted read. I am now looking forward to reading Sarah Waters' other novels (although I have been told they are different from 'Affinity').
This is the second of Sarah Waters' books that I have picked up and I did so only on the strength that I enjoyed FINGERSMITH so much. Recently I watched the BBC adaptation of TIPPING THE VELVET and was very impressed by this and this also strengthened my resolve to read something else by the same author. I can safely say that this is one I robably shouldn't have bothered with...
Set in Victorian England, AFFINITY begins with what appears to be a random event for which we are given little explanation before going off into the life of Magaret Prior who, following an illness and the death of her father, becomes a lady-visitor to the women incarcenated in a local prison, Millbank. Drawn into trhe cell of the mysteriously quiet inmate, Selina Dawes, Magaret becomes fascinated by this captivating prisoner and obssessed with the story that lies behind her crime. Selina, it emerges, is a spiritualist and there is much controversy surrounding her conviction; no less because she claims the woman she assualted was not by her hand but by that of a spirit.
Alternating between the journals of Selina and the diary kept by Magaret about her prison visits, we ourselves are drawn ever deeper into these two womens lives as we try to ascertain just what is real and what, if any of it, is imagined. Conflicts arise in Magaret's family as her mother despairs of her daughter's newest distraction and there is the obligatory hint of same sex relationships that appears present in all Water's books though here it is the merest hint in the background and never really fully explored.
The main crux of my displeasure was that I didn't feel as though anything really happened and the ending was a little predictable right from the start- once you worked out what was going on. The details of prison life are very well written and adequately researched but the story they are wrapped around doesn't do the details any justice. There is simply no way to compare this with FINGERSMITH which in my eyes was far far superior.
Overall the story is very Dickensian with its hints of mysticism and its Victorian setting but this is not a good place I would say to start if you hadn't read any Sarah Waters before- instead I would try one of her more commercial endeavours instead such as FINGERSMITH or TIPPING THE VELVET; for me nothing in this book really cut the mustard and, after a couple hundred of pages, I found myself not really caring about the characters at all which is always a bad sign that a book is not all it should be.
Intresting but not enough to keep me totally entertained, overall rather a dissappointing read that failed to maintain my interest for very long ater the final page.
I have to admit when I bought this book, I did so based on the picture on the cover, as I did not have my glasses with me. Sounds silly, doesn't it, although relevant to my review of this book since, had I read the descriptions of other works given by the Independent on Sunday, whom I can only presume did not read this book, I perhaps would not have bought it. They describe her work entitled Tipping the Velvet as a sexy and picaresque romp through the lesbian and queer demi-monde of the Roaring Nineties. That made my approach to the book wary, since the kind of literature that I enjoy reading would not be of this ilk.
Undaunted by descriptions of her other works, I decided to take the plunge and read what is possibly the best book that I have read for a very long time.
The story takes the reader into the mysterious times of the 1870's and tells of how a young lady of relatively well bred background, recovering from the death of her father, is given a worthwhile job to do, visiting prisoners in a womens prison called Millbank as a Lady Visitor, intended to encourage the prisoners to seek self worth and respect. The description of the prison and of what the heroine of the story finds within the dark corridors that are home to many lady inmates is indeed detailed and pursuasive in that the reader is pulled into a story of despair, love, hope and betrayal in such a way that one almost believes the reality of the characters. This is a well written book, and I was rather impressed with the way the book diaries the lives of two women, whose lives touch in terrible circumstances, and yet makes each of the ladies characters plausible and exceptionally well detailed, one being a wealthy resident of a fashionable area in Chelsea, and the other a prisoner with whom she becomes enchanted, after her initial encounter, which left her startled and wanting to know more.
Every relationship within the book is explained in such a way as to be completely understandable. You feel for the characters, understand their views, their disappointments, and take a step back in time, as the routine of the ladies prison in the 1870's is detailed to such a degree that it almost like visiting the prison yourself and understanding the reactions of characters clearly drawn upon a canvas in such a way that you can almost see them. I have always believed that story writing should be like painting a picture with words, and Sarah Waters does this exceedingly well. Encouraged to visit at different times of the day, Margaret unravels the routines, the punishments, the joys and desperation of women incarcerated within the walls of Millbank.
I am irritated by writing that is not clear, and here Sarah Waters excels in clarity, but she goes further than that. What she achieves within the 352 pages is a well researched story that has a moral, and here the moral was not at all obvious until the later pages of the book. This isn't a book to cheat on, or to read ahead, but one to digest because each paragraph has relevance to the whole story, and one of the most valuable assets this writer has is her wonderful use of description, down to the most minute detail, though never superfluous, each little vignette created in words being there for a purpose.
The relationship between Margaret, the lady visitor in the book, and her mother was portrayed in such a way as to be familiar, and the sibling jealousy is given reason and substance. The staff at the prison are superbly portrayed, although the astounding relationship between Margaret and a prisoner that goes by the name of Selina Dawes is what makes the story work. Words were never wasted and the storyline was never padded with unecessary drivel. Each word had its' place and I really am impressed at the skill of this writer, whose love of the English language touches the reader on each page.
Stories which touch on the supernatural often fail to deliver feasibility although this books excels in that the only explanation for the strange events which befall Margaret are logical and clear, and the balance of the girls' mind explained in every detail as if reliving the experience. Encounters with spiritualists, explanations of their work and how it is used to develop a bond between two human beings is extraordinary.It was a hard book to put down, and once the reader was taken into the journey of discovery, the story was thrilling right to the very last page, which is rare.
One of the quotes at the beginning of the book is rather relevant and stated that she is such a brilliant writer that the reader would believe anything that she told them, and here her skills were akin to those of classical writers such as Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. I would thoroughly recommend the book to those that want a read that is worthwhile, one that is startlingly realistic, and written in such a manner that there is no mistaking of the message borne within the pages.
A superb book and a writer that I shall be watching out for with interest in the future.
Available from Amazon at 6.39 GBP
Margaret Prior makes her way through the pentagons of London's Millbank Prison, a place of fearful symmetry and endless corridors¿