Monday, January 23, 2012

Affinity by Sarah Waters

An upper-class woman, recovering from a suicide attempt, visits the women's ward of Millbank prison as part of her rehabilitation. There she meets Selina, an enigmatic spiritualist-and becomes drawn into a twilight world of ghosts and shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions, until she is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina's freedom, and her own.

"Unfolds sinuously and ominously...a powerful plot-twister. The book is multidimensional: a naturalistic look at Victorian society; a truly suspenseful tale of terror; and a piece of elegant, thinly veiled erotica." (USA Today)

"Gothic tale, psychological study, puzzle narrative-Sarah Waters' second novel is all of these wrapped into one, served up to superbly suspenseful and hypnotic effect." (The Seattle Times)
Today Marg and I have decided to review Affinity by Sarah Waters together. Enjoy!

Kelly: I am always happy to pick-up a book by Sarah Waters. What did you think of this book overall? What made you choose it over the other Sarah Waters that you haven’t read yet?

Marg: Actually, this is my first Sarah Waters, so the main reason for choosing it is that it is one of the Waters books that you haven’t read! How many have you read and how did this one compare to the others that you have read?

Kelly: Really? I totally had it in my mind that you read The Night Watch. Well, you are in for some treats! I really liked The Night Watch because it takes place during WWII. I knew little to nothing about Sarah Waters, but the setting appealed to me and I decided that I had to read it. Then, I actually discovered that Waters was very popular and I had been missing out. The other book I read by her was Fingersmith. It seemed a lot different than The Night Watch. If I remember correctly, it has been a while, The Night Watch started from the end and went to the beginning. There were no real mysteries compared to the atmospheric novel Fingersmith. This book was a lot more like Fingersmith, though. It was gothic in nature, there were twists and turns (but not like Fingersmith), and you may or may not know how it was going to all play out in the end. I really enjoyed it, though. Fingersmith remains my favourite, though, and I just feel like The Night Watch is not something that really can be compared because it is different.

What did you think of this book as your first taste of Sarah Waters, then?

Marg: I own Night Watch. Just haven’t read it yet!

I thought I had a fair idea of what to expect from a Sarah Waters book, but I found it quite a bit more literary than I thought it would be! The topic itself (spiritualism in the late 19th century) was fascinating but the strength of the book really was towards the end. The tension built and I couldn’t wait to see what happened.

Kelly: I consider that her true talent. She writes interesting beginnings, but as the book gets going it really comes into its own and you are flipping the pages to find out just what is going to happen next. So far I have enjoyed that with all of them.

I agree with this book that spiritualism in the late 19th century was a very interesting topic. She wrote so well that once in a while I almost believed in spiritualism. I was curious about how it was all going to be explained out in the end.

What did you think of the characters?

Marg: i thought the characters were really well done. The major characters were all multi faceted and I thought that the way that the reliability of the two main characters was written was interesting. In a way, our main character Margaret seemed to be a bit of an unreliable narrator. We knew that she had had an illness (as described in the book) and she seemed to be unsure of herself, and especially of the things that were happening to her. She seemed to strengthen through the novel though. I felt so sorry for her at the end, especially in the light of the restrictions placed on women in Victorian society, especially those who don’t fit the mould of what is seen to be normal.

With Selina’s past story interwoven through the narrative, I certainly started off with the assumption that she was a charlatan and yet as the spooky events started her character was so compelling it was hard to have doubts about her!

I thought that the setting in the Victorian prison was totally a character in this book. The atmosphere was dark and brooding and very claustrophobic and the various warders helped create that feeling as well.

Were there any of the episodes that Selina caused that were a bit scary to you?

Kelly: I thought the characters were well done, too. Sarah Waters is very gifted at writing characters that stick with you long after finishing the book. Margaret and Selina are two such characters. I felt bad for Margaret. She was a lesbian in Victorian England. It was not exactly the accepted lifestyle. The first woman she loved married her brother and then the events of her relationship with Selina were heart-breaking at times. That was not exactly apparent from the beginning, but as we began to know Margaret better it became more apparent. This is the saddest book I have read by Waters so far.

I agree. I never entirely trusted Selina, but the events she conducted were explained in such detail it was hard to see them as untrustworthy. I think that is what makes a gifted charlatan. If she wasn’t good at what she did; she would not have any customers. She was gifted at selling her act and making people feel compelled to do things for her. She just basically creeped me out, though. I am thinking it was because I had read Waters in past and knew there were usually major plot changes that lead me to not entirely trust Selina. There were just moments where I couldn’t entirely explain why what she was saying was a lie. I look at all the episodes that Selina caused as a whole and think she was just scary in general. She seemed like such an innocent, but there was a calculating mind behind everything she did. She was gifted at manipulating.

Did you think the book was believable for the time in which it was set and the events that occurred?

Marg: I definitely thought it reflected the time it was set in. To be a women in Victorian times was restrictive enough, let alone a lesbian woman, and throw in her health issues and it is no wonder that she was quite unhappy at times. I can’t help but be anxious that she is going to continue to be very unhappy after the events at the end of the book, and having to face her family will be difficult for her.

Do you like the diary entry format of the story?

Kelly: As long as it is done well, I really like diary-style books. They are never entirely believable because who remembers such exacting details from their day and writes in their diaries like that, but I think it was handled well. It showed enough of the story to see what was going on and that is the important thing. I also enjoyed that it was alternating between two people and their diaries. I think it wouldn’t have been the same story if the reader didn’t get to see both sides.

Marg: There are some diary books that are great to read, but there are others that aren’t! I was relieved to see that this was one of the good ones!

Kelly: What did you think of the relationships between the characters? Did you think they were believable?

Marg: I actually thought the relationships between the characters were really well drawn, especially the difficult relationship between Margaret and her now sister-in-law. If there was one character I did struggle with a little it would be Margaret’s mother, but I have no doubt that she was acting completely within the social and moral restrictions of the time.

Which relationships did you think were written well, or not as the case may be?

Kelly: Yes, the relationship between Margaret and her sister-in-law was very interesting. It was a nice addition to add a bit of sympathy to your view of Margaret. It must be even worse when you have a relationship with someone and not only does it not work out, but they marry your brother so you have to see them all the time. I don’t think you were meant to like Margaret’s mother. And, yes, she was probably very realistic for her time. Another relationship that was interesting was the one between Margaret and her father. He is dead at the time the book is set, but he is mentioned so much he really is another character in the book. I felt bad because it seemed that he encouraged Margaret to be a bit different and then he died before she actually got to live out her dreams. It left her with no real ally in the world. It was just interesting because of the time period and the expectations of the time. And it was another way that I felt badly for Margaret.

Obviously the big relationship in the book was the one between Margaret and Selina. What did you think of that relationship?

Marg: I found it interesting and appreciated the way that the relationship built up over time. I do think that Selina was extremely adept at manipulating the emotions of those around her, not only with Margaret, but also with so many other of the characters (mostly female) that we met through the course of the book. This manipulative ability combined with her evident charisma and somewhat dodgy moral character seems to lend itself to a fascinating character to read about.

Margaret would seem to be someone who would be an easy target for this kind of person though. She is already emotionally fragile, definitely aware of her apartness (for the want of a better word) from most other Victorian ladies of her social standing, and therefore the idea of acceptance from someone, from anyone, is one that she desperately clings to and in the short term at least is empowered by.

How did you read their relationship, both throughout the book and in the context of the end of the book?


Kelly: I have to admit that having read Sarah Waters twice before I was thinking there was something coming. I knew that things were not at all as they seemed, so I was very suspicious of the whole relationship. I just didn’t understand how their friendship would help Selina get out of jail. There were details that were not revealed to us until the end of the book. I was happy about that because then I was legitimately surprised. I love surprises in books. The Night Watch was a different sort of book, but Fingersmith had many surprises in store. I was able to figure out a couple of them, but there were still other twists and turns that caught me unaware. When an author can do that I know they are someone I am meant to be reading.

To get back to your actual question, Selina sort of creeped me out. As the book was told we were able to see her side of things. I always rather looked on people with her ‘abilities’ as con artists, but that is my personal opinion. As a result I read all of her sections with much scepticism. I didn’t entirely know the whole story, but I knew that things were likely a bit biased and things were being left out. I was still surprised by the connections in the story, but that is what I enjoy so much about books by this author.

What did you think?

Marg:I was absolutely sceptical about Serena and her talents all the way through, but as we were getting towards the end of the book I couldn’t quite see how she was doing the things she was doing. The solution made perfect sense though!

Overall,I am glad to have finally read my first Sarah Waters and I am looking forward to reading the next one which I think will probably be Night Watch given that I have owned that one for a couple of years.

Kelly: I hope you enjoy The Night Watch. It is a bit different from this one. I enjoyed reading this one together, though. I look forward to more Sarah Waters in the future and more buddy reads.


  1. Thank you for a very nice review.

  2. I enjoyed this dual-review format. I have never read Sara Waters before, and your thoughts have made me think I need to fix that. I am intrigued by your observation that the prison feels like a character in and of itself...