Of course I want to be transported to another world! I want to be absorbed deeper and deeper into the characters, the twists and turns of the plot, to hang on the edge of my seat and keep those pages turning! I have loved mystery novels since I was a young child and on those days when my own inner tumult threatens to send me spiraling downward, it is the mystery novel that keeps me afloat.
I was delighted to discover Sarah Waters. The first book I read was Affinity, which takes place in 1874 and tells the story of two women, one a visitor to Millbank prison and the other, a prisoner who is a spiritualist. They are drawn together slowly within the context of the prison itself, the other prisoners and warders, their independent histories, and a tangle of lies and deceptions. Affinity begins with “I was never frightened as I am now. They left me sitting in the dark…” Waters had me hooked with her description of Millbank gaol. Margaret Prior has survived a suicide attempt and is volunteering to visit the women in the prison as therapy. It makes one wonder, as she describes the conditions of the gaol, exactly how therapeutic this visiting could be: “I wish that Pa were with me now. I would ask him how he would write the story I have embarked upon today. I would ask how he would neatly tell the story of a prison-of Millbank prison-which has so many separate lives in it, and is so curious a shape, and must be approached, so darkly, through so many gates and twisting passages…I think it would certainly drive me mad if I had to work as a warder there. As it was, I walked flinchingly beside the man who led me, and paused once to glance behind me, then to gaze at the wedge of sky…The shadows…are the color of bruises…” This gave me the shivers.
Margaret Prior’s obsession with Selina Dawes is drawn at first with delicate allusions. There has been a previous female lover in Margaret’s life, one who broke her heart and married Margaret’s brother, adding yet another tension to the story. The reader isn’t sure at first if the passion Margaret has for Selina is returned or if Selina is just glad for any friendship, but by the stunning ending, you can’t wait to find out.
Waters’ other book Fingersmith also has many twists and turns. The male character known as Gentleman is handsome and charming, manipulative and cruel. It is not until the final chapter that all of the deceptions begin to make sense.
In Fingersmith, the description of the lovemaking between Sue Trinder and Maud Lily, of opposite social classes, both involved in a swindle that each knows bits of but not the whole, are luscious and sensual. I am not gay and yet, the descriptions of their embraces, as well as the awareness of each other’s bodies, gestures, facial expressions, are written with so much feminine sensuality within the context of Victorian social behavior and mores, that they are riveting and beautiful. Sue is a maid who must dress and attend Maud, Maud is depicted as pure, unexposed to the world. The attraction between them turns into a love story and the plot thickens as each must consider not only her participation in harming the other but the way that Gentleman has a psychological hold on each. Will they be able to save each other or themselves?
I think in all of Sarah Waters’ books, one is left unsettled. There are not happy endings and neat wrap ups where the bad guy gets what he deserves. But the characters are awakened out of their false illusions and shaken into reality. Love is not only blind but can lead to tragic consequences. But you can be sure there is love, maternal love of a parent for a child, passionate love between women, vain love for property and its social significance. The important thing is that I couldn’t put her books down and was transported to another culture, another century, another lifestyle, another perspective, another life.