Review: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Another historical fiction for me this year (I am starting to strongly suspect that historical fiction is my favorite genre. Does that make me a horrible cliché? I just love history so much…)
This one is another Victorian crime fiction. The narrative is split between two main characters, Susan Trinder and Maud Lilly, and tells the story of a very multi-layered, complicated swindle. It’s also very fantastical in its set-up: thieves switched with ladies at birth, faked madness, criminal masterminds, identity theft, swindlers and rogues and blackguards…
As I’ve mentioned before in a previous post, the writing in this novel is very atmospheric. Sarah Waters is doing the thing a lot of authors do when writing a story set in this time period – they try and mimic the writing style and dialogue of the time, but, as usual, the only thing that she can get close to is the syntax and the punctuation of contemporaneous novels. I think the fact that the environment is so different makes it impossible to perfectly capture the setting and the atmosphere and the feel of the Victorian era in a modern-written novel - first of all, any author trying to get published today doesn't have to worry about not getting published if they say something too out there, so there's far fewer layers of subtext and context and things left unsaid in novels published today, even about the Victorian period. I don't think that can get captured by someone who just isn't concerned about being censored. Anyway, I digress. The writing itself in Fingersmith is far more narrative, lilting, metaphorical and fluid than anything that was actually published then; and obviously the vocabulary is modern.
It works really well, though. The writing lulls you into the story, so you fall into it more fully than you anticipate when you first pick up the book. What did get a little grating, however, was how unrelentingly shit all of the characters are. I’m not kidding – every single named character in this book is just an awful person, bad through to the bone, with not a single scrap of a redeeming quality. They’re so bad they make the villains who twirl their mustaches and tie young maidens to railway tracks in old corny Westerns look like good people. There is not a single example, in this entire book, of someone behaving with decency or kindness or compassion. I have read some reviews of the book and interviews with Sarah Waters since I’ve finished it, and apparently that was done on purpose: she was writing a novel about all the different forms of exploitation that existed in the time period for everyone who was even slightly vulnerable, especially women - who were at the mercy of the men in their lives, whether or not they had independent fortunes (which the majority of them did not, because, you know. Male preference in inheritance laws. Primogeniture. The Married Women's Property Act. All that fun shit). That definitely comes through, especially in the chapters about the madhouse.
The plot was a bit on the weird side, which at one point Sarah Waters does have a character poke fun at. There was a Victorian porn angle, a bit of incest happening, and, of course, the love story between the two main characters, Sue and Maud. But the plot twists are judiciously sprinkled at the end of every section, and were carefully constructed so that while they were surprising and made me yelp “Ooh! A plot twist!” they weren’t come-from-nowhere, lazy twists that made no sense to the story or to the way the characters had been sketched.
It was a bit more of a mixed bag on the characters - the two main characters were fully developed, very real people, but the rest of them - especially the secondary and tertiary characters - did feel a bit flat, like they hadn't been as fully thought through. This might just be an issue with first-person narration, in the sense that we get all of the inner monologues and thoughts of the two main characters and so know them better than the other ones; but the supporting cast did feel a bit one-dimensional, especially by the end. The characters, the plot and the atmosphere all slotted in quite neatly together, and the characters’ actions all felt true to the way they had been drawn and created and described throughout the book. Plus, the dialogue and the writing was just so subtle – Sarah Waters has written her characters’ interactions very carefully, so that everything feels like it’s working in innuendo and subtext and slippery, so you’re never quite sure where you stand or what the other person is thinking or is going to say. It makes for a clever, complicated, dark knot right at the heart of the novel that you feel this constant itch to unpick even while dreading what might happen when you do – which is the perfect atmosphere for this book and the story Waters is trying to tell.
The love story is also quite touching, as well. It was enjoyable to watch the two main characters fall into each other and fall for each other, even as you could see the way they were fighting against it. I think that Waters could have perhaps explored the way the characters felt torn between the swindle and their love story more than she did – as it is, she just kind of touched on the conflict between Sue’s motives and her feelings for Maud – and the resolution to the love story does come a bit unexpectedly quickly at the end, as well as a bit easily. It seems like forgiveness is the first thing they both reach for, when actually it seems like they could have gone through many, many more steps before getting to that safe, comfortable, happy place.
All in all though, I really did enjoy this book. I liked the story, and watching the way it twisted and turned and figuring things out at the same time as the characters were, and being shocked and scared and outraged in all the right parts. The emotional notes maybe fell a bit flat, but I think that’s because the book was about 50-75 pages too long, and more time was spent on characters that were less fully developed than the two main characters – if we had spent more time developing Sue and Maud’s relationship and less time on the madhouse bit, I would perhaps have found the emotional climax more impactful and would have been less depressed by how fricking bleak everything was for women in Victorian England (although, again, that was kind of the point, according to the author).
This was my first Sarah Waters book, and it’s definitely made me want to go check out her other work. If you have read any of her novels, or you have thoughts about this one, please let me know!