31 October, 2013

Affinity, by Sarah Waters. Book review

Virago Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-86049-692-9. 352 pages

Affinity is set in Victorian London in 1873-1875. All the main characters are fictional.

Lonely Margaret Prior, unmarried at twenty-nine, has not recovered from the recent loss of her lover and her father in quick succession. Facing a bleak future as a companion to her controlling mother, Margaret becomes a Lady Visitor at Millbank women’s prison, hoping to find a purpose in her empty life. There she encounters the enigmatic Selina Dawes, a spiritualist medium imprisoned for fraud and assault after a séance went disastrously wrong. Margaret finds herself drawn to Selina, first by curiosity and then by an infatuation bordering on obsession, leading her to run a terrible risk...

Affinity is a dark, atmospheric psychological drama. The dreary, dehumanising environment of Millbank women’s prison is superbly realised, as is the stifling world of the wealthy middle-class lady to which Margaret belongs.  Most of the novel is set in a London winter, and the short daylight hours, gaslight and ever-present fogs add to the atmosphere of oppression.  This makes the book rather a gloomy read to begin with; the reader is drawn all too readily into Margaret’s depression.  Because it is so well written and the settings are so well portrayed, I carried on reading despite the dreary subject matter, partly in a spirit of antiquarian interest in the late Victorian prison system and the strange world of Victorian spiritualism.  Then the plot takes a sudden shattering twist right at the end.  It’s impossible to say much about this without spoiling the surprise, so I will just say that the ending made all the gloomy build-up worthwhile.  This is definitely not a novel to give up on halfway through; the revelations continue literally to the last page.

The novel is told in the form of two alternating first-person diaries.  Margaret’s diary forms most of the book, and tells of her experiences as a prison visitor, her meetings with Selina and the consequences. Selina’s diary outlines the events that led up to her imprisonment. The paperback helpfully typesets the two diaries in different fonts, although the two women have such distinctive voices that they are easily distinguished by style alone.  Margaret’s character emerges clearly from her diary, almost as thoroughly imprisoned by social conventions and duties as Selina is by the walls of Millbank. The recent death of Margaret’s beloved father, following close on the loss of her love (a woman, who married Margaret’s brother) have left her terribly emotionally vulnerable. When she believes she glimpses even the faintest possibility of love, Margaret is prepared to do almost anything in its pursuit. The result is heartbreaking.

Selina’s diary is oddly emotionless, and she remains something of an enigma, at least to me.  I still cannot make up my mind about her: charlatan or victim?

The novel is beautifully written in clear, stylish prose.  Margaret’s diary contains a clever mix of reported speech (“She said, Had I seen….”) and actual dialogue, adding to the sense of Margaret’s emotional detachment from most of the routines of her life.

There is no historical note, perhaps because the characters and events are all fictional.

Dark, stylish psychological drama set against the eerie background of Victorian spiritualism.


Rick said...

Selina’s diary is oddly emotionless, and she remains something of an enigma, at least to me. I still cannot make up my mind about her: charlatan or victim?

Perhaps something of both? I can easily imagine Victorian occultism lending itself to being both charlatan and victim!

Carla said...

Perhaps something of both. I'm inclined to charlatan, myself, although there's a slightly menacing phrase very near the end that made me reconsider. Up to each reader to decide :-)