by Sarah Waters
Following the death of her father, Margaret Prior has decided to pursue some 'good work' with the lady criminals of one of London's most notorious gaols. Surrounded by prisoners, murderers and common thieves, Margaret feels herself drawn to one of the prisons more unlikely inmates – the imprisoned spiritualist – Selina Dawes. Sympathetic to the plight of this innocent-seeming girl, Margaret sees herself dispensing guidance and perhaps friendship on her visits, little expecting to find herself dabbling in a twilight world of seances, shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions.
I read Affinity last year, it was the first Sarah Waters novel I read, and as I'm slowly making my way through her novels - I've already read Fingersmith (reviewed here!) and The Little Stranger (reviewed here!) this year - I realised I didn't actually review Affinity after I read it. Usually I wouldn't try and review a book a year after reading it, but I remember Affinity fairly well and it'll bug me if, once I've caught up with Waters' currently published novels, I've reviewed all but one.
Plus now is the perfect time of year to talk about Affinity; subjects like imprisonment and spiritualism make for fitting themes as Halloween approaches!
If there's one thing I love about the way Sarah Waters writes, it's the way she shrouds her stories with atmosphere. I don't only read Waters' books, I fall into them and I'm always left thinking about them afterwards. I've mentioned in a previous review how much I love her books because her characters feel like real people, like I might bump into them on the street even though they live in a different time, and Affinity is no different.
After the death of her beloved father, Margaret Prior has fallen into a depression and has even attempted to take her own life and no one is sure how to help her. In the 19th century clinical depression, or 'melancholia', was still misunderstood - if ever acknowledged at all - and so Margaret makes the decision to visit the lady's wing of Millbank Prison. This is a pastime that many upper class ladies did, and could afford to do, to 'give something back'. And, of course, to set an example to the prisoners and their fellow ladies.
All Margaret needs to do is talk to these women, to listen to their stories and maybe even give some advice, but she is not allowed to pass on letters or gifts or help them in anything but a metaphorical way. One of the inmates Margaret meets is Selina Dawes, a spiritualist who has been imprisoned after one of her seances led to the assault of one woman and the death of another, and over the course of the novel Margaret finds herself increasingly drawn to Selina.
For any of you who don't already know, Sarah Waters primarily writes LGBT* fiction - five of her six novels include LGBT* protagonists - and I loved how Margaret's sexuality was handled. She's a woman who feels so stifled by the expectations of the 19th century society she lives in, and is so desperate to break free, but she doesn't feel brave enough to break free alone. She's the kind of protagonist who'll break your heart.
Waters' descriptions of Millbank are exquisite; in some ways she reminds me of Daphne du Maurier, for her detail when it comes to her settings makes the prison come alive and swallow you whole in the same way Manderley does in Rebecca. Millbank, of course, has the benefit of having been a real place, but not in our lifetime; the building was demolished in 1903.
The entire atmosphere of Affinity is perfect for the story it's telling. It's a gloomy, melancholic and uneasy book; Waters plays around with the idea of spiritualism, lets you wonder whether Selina is really gifted, if she really can see and speak to spirits, or if it's all just a sham. I also love that, by the end of the novel, we have an answer. This may be more personal preference than anything else, but endings in which the author says 'and now you decide for yourself!' have always frustrated me - you're the author, you tell me how it ends!
I really enjoyed Affinity, but it's not my favourite of Waters' novels and I'm not sure I'd recommend starting with this one despite the fact that I did start with this one and really love her novels. I haven't read all of her books yet, but there seems to be a general consensus that this is the gloomiest of her novels and, as such, reading this one first might give the impression that the majority of her work is glum when it isn't at all. This woman was born to write, and she's a fantastic novelist.
However, for those of you intimidated by larger books starting with Affinity might work best for you because I'm fairly certain this is the shortest of her novels, but don't let yourself be put off by her chunkier work; it's easy to fly through this lady's novels.
If you haven't checked out Sarah Waters' work, I can't recommend her enough!