Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sarah Waters' "Fingersmith": Book Review

Recommended to me, I enjoyed this. Gothic conventions: madhouse, double-crossing, inheritance, thievery, a gentleman's claims-- provide a solid foundation for an engrossing plot and convincing characters in 1862 London and environs.

This not being my usual genre, I lack familiarity with Waters' other fiction. But if this is any indication, she merits her awards. There's marvelous twinned descriptions of a scene that writers often overlook: how Victorian London gradually must have grown and how one coming from a rural destination would first espy its smoke and steeples who'd never seen it before from this prospect. The amount of description employed by Waters tends to be integrated well; there aren't the set-pieces many writers might have shown off with, but you see only what the two first-person narrators do, as they encounter it. This adds immediacy and the pace does not drag. The depictions of sex, albeit limited to one key night, from two points of view, and one view of death are delineated with skill; they remain vividly in your mind. The historical details are woven into the narrative deftly and the novel does not betray the "researched" quality that (much as I liked it) felt more prominent in Michel Faber's "The Crimson Petal and the White."

It's not possible to tell hardly anything about the story without divulging secrets. So, a few passages of Waters' prose will suffice to bring you into the mindset of her mid-Victorian two young women who tell their paired stories. Metaphors work subtly, and the women's words are chosen carefully. "I should never put her down as the motherly sort, myself; but servants grow sentimental over the swells they work for, like dogs grow fond of bullies. You take my word for it." (61)

"And yet, even wax limbs must yield at last, to the heat of the hands that lift and place them. There comes a night when, finally, I yield to hers."
(260) Much later: "There are pictures behind his head, pinned to the wall in wax-paper wrappers: a girl on a swing, showing her legs; a girl in a boat, about to slip; a girl falling, falling from the breaking branch of a tree. . .I close my eyes." (351)

These excerpts capture the eerie, yet patiently detailed, tone of the novel. I do concur with a discussion on Amazon marked "Spoiler Alert," however. The motivation of that character was understated in that revelatory scene so that it could be perceived as too reticent. The motivations can be drawn out in context but as the critique at the discussion suggests this may escape a reader not keenly observant on reading between the lines. Likewise, there's a haunting mood for the concluding pages that resolves it all while leaving a subtle ambiguity, that suited the tone of the entire novel elegantly start to finish. Yet, this may remain elusive for those eager to account for every nuance.

One character, in a rare moment, makes this metafiction. "Terrible plots? Laughing villains? Stolen fortunes and girls made out to be mad? The stuff of lurid fiction! We have a name for your disease. We call it a hyper-aesthetic one. You have been encouraged to over-indulge yourself in literature, and have inflamed your organs of fancy." (394) This is a fine place to inflame your own fancy organs, in these pages. (Posted to Amazon US 12-1-09)

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