Well, Sarah Waters has done it again. She’s completely hijacked my life with one of her engrossing, agonizing novels. I’ve previously read Fingersmith and The Little Stranger and loved them both so turned to Affinity with much anticipation. I bought a copy of it about a year ago and just couldn’t work up any interest in it at that time. When I picked it up last week during the midst of my reading slump I knew that it was the golden book that was going to break me out of the slump.
Margaret Prior is a mentally ill spinster who lives with her widowed mother in London during the 1870’s. In an effort to distract her from the depression that has overwhelmed her after the death of her father, a family friend suggests that she become a “lady visitor” at Millbank Prison. The role of the lady visitor is to inspire the prisoners to be better people by the example of their good breeding and good sense. Margaret immediately feels the hypocrisy of this effort yet continues to visit the prison when she becomes smitten with Selina Dawes, who is a spirit medium in prison for abusing a patron of her work. Selina is enchantingly beautiful with golden hair and the look of a renaissance painting. She seems to be a cut above the other prisoners and more refined and innocent than her fellow inmates. Margaret soon becomes obsessed with her, an obsession that leads to terrible decisions and feverish choices. Will Margaret risk her comfortable middle-class life to have the woman she loves?
Affinity oozes with dread. The novel is dark and dangerous and the sense of foreboding for the reader corresponds with the downward spiral of Margaret’s despair. I love when authors can match the reader’s feelings to the plot. I really liked Margaret. She is clearly intelligent and gifted, yet she is bored with her status in society. She so desperately does not want to be her mother’s companion for the remainder of her life. She is looking for passion, for beauty, for an experience that will lift her above the drudgery and routine of daily life. Selina provides this escape. Selina is mysterious, exotic and powerful and is maybe the more fascinating character because we never really know her. The novel is told through diary entries, Margaret’s interspersed with Selina’s daily jottings of her life before prison. Margaret is easy to sympathize with, Selina is not and she is also a bit frightening because of her ability to sway people’s impressions of her.
Despite its unhappy premise I adored this novel. I really do think Sarah Waters is a fabulous writer and she is, at the moment, my favorite.
Have you read Affinity or any other novels by Sarah Waters? What do you think of her books?