Saturday, November 26, 2011

Affinity, by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters is an interesting little author that I stumbled across thanks to a Chapters sale last year.  Having read her book The Little Stranger, I was intrigued by her ability to use a male voice so effectively, her seamless blend of the supernatural with the mundane, and her ability to tell an effortless history of post-war aristocratic poverty.  So, having enjoyed Stranger so much, I set out to find some more of her books and landed on Affinity.

Telling the interweaved stories of a ‘spinster’ (God, I love that word) and a con-woman in Victorian London, Affinity allows the reader into various worlds within the period.  Margaret is the eldest daughter of a wealthy family who has recently lost its patriarch – depressed over the loss of her favorite parent, and heartbroken over loosing the woman she loves (to her brother of all people), Margaret is recovering from a suicide attempt when it is suggested she volunteer at the local woman’s prison as a ‘Visitor.’  While there, Margaret meets Selina, a young woman imprisoned for assault of her patron in whose home she was living.  Selina was living with her patron because she was a medium, and was acting as the vessel through which the patron’s mother visited her.  During a session with a friend of her patron (a teenage girl), a spirit got a little rowdy and the girl was hurt – the patron saw it, had a heart attack, and died.  Selina ended up in prison.  Affinity is the story of the growing connection between Margaret and Selina, and Margaret’s willingness to cling to anything in the wake of her heartbreaks.  (The Advocate gave this book a good review, btw.)

I found this book a little slow to get into at first – Waters took her time in the opening chapters to describe settings and surroundings, which might have been better served working to develop her characters.  The character development is slow in coming, so you’re basically thrust into the middle of a book before you’ve even started it (and Waters cleverly address that feeling up-front).

There is a fair bit of the supernatural and macabre running through out this book, so I was worried that Waters would be a one-trick pony and mimic her story development line from Stranger, but this wasn’t the case.  While the structure is similar, it couldn’t be more opposite.  Unfortunately, details cannot be provided without ruining both books, which I absolutely refuse to do.

The characters are all strong, but there are several who probably could have used more development for the role that they played in the book.  Very little is told about Margaret’s sister, and what we know of her is gleaned from her interactions that Margaret witnesses; Margaret’s sister-in-law was clearly her lover at some point, but we never do find out if it was a physical relationship, and it’s unclear what happened to drive them apart, and her into a marriage with Margaret’s brother; and Selina herself – the climax provides context for the beginning of her tale, but there are holes left in it regarding her friends, and what there role was in the events that led to her imprisonment.  Waters was clearly trying to play it coy, to match the tenor of the tale she was telling (all about the long-con and griftting), but the mood she was trying to set meant the story suffered.

All in all, though, I’d recommend this book.  I’ve got another Waters’ work sitting on my shelf that I’m looking forward to reading, so I think she’s an author that will appear in my regular rotation and that I’ll be looking for new works from.  

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