Aimee's Reviews > Affinity

Affinity by Sarah Waters
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's review
Sep 21, 2009

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Read in August, 2009

Sarah Waters is a real talent, there's no questioning that. And if you haven't read one of her books, I request that you start straight away, beginning with Fingersmith, because it is sure to whet your appetite for more.

I think, however, that because I started off with Tipping the Velvet (which I really liked), and then moved onto Fingersmith (loved), I had this expectation that each book would be better than the last. And I think that's a bit unfair to Ms Waters, because this was a book of superior quality. But it just wasn't, in my opinion, as superior as Fingersmith. Which makes it difficult to wonder whether I'll be too biased in my review. Oh well.

The reason I feel I can particularly compare the two is that they are both written in the Victorian era and have some similar settings. The entirety of Affinity takes place in a women's prison, where Margaret Prior, a plain, almost 30 year old woman comes to comfort and help the women contained behind its bars as a 'Lady Visitor'.
Then she meets Selina Dawes.
Selina is a prisoner and a spiritual medium, locked in for fraud and possible assault after a session with a client goes horribly wrong. Selina has the face and repose of an angel, or some other celestial being, and her budding relationship with Margaret turns Margaret to the past - to the love of a woman who in the end chose her brother instead of her. Margaret's life with her mother is depressing to herself and the reader, and we see her anxiety at being left behind to grow old and loveless without true companionship.
We flit back and forth between Margaret's diary observations of her time at the women's prison, and Selina Dawes' own memories of her past, and the puzzle of the story shows to be drawing together as Margaret and Selina's relationship becomes one of forbidden passion and desire. Margaret, a staunch realist after her own brief and secret dance with madness, believes Selina's spiritual talent to at first be false or a figment of Selina's imagination in her madness, but then strange things start to happen, and Margaret begins to believe in magic. But is believing the wonderful risk that it appears to be for Margaret's one chance at happiness, or something that offers a denial of reality's true face?

The book is strange and often haunting. I found myself a little bit creeped out in places, particularly in the parts of the novel where we relive some of Selina's 'sessions' with her very own gentleman spirit, Peter Quick, joining the party. I would say that these parts are not downright scary in the way of the horror genre, but they are unsettling, almost eerie, and do a great job in portraying what Selina's clients must have felt paying their money and joining the circle for a chance to speak with those on the 'other side'.

Affinity is not as openly sexual in the way that Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet are, with its scenes of lesbian sexual intercourse, but in its own way it could be seen to be even more erotic, as Waters masterfully holds the forbidden fruit just out of Margaret's reach, leaving her sorely tempted and a willing victim to her desire for Selina. A desire that can never be acted out physically whilever the prison bars exist between them.

Margaret is a somewhat unlikely protagonist, she seems so unsure of herself a lot of the time, and therefore vulnerable - I wonder what lesson she learns in the end. But all the same she is a well-crafted character and her flaws complement Selina's character, which is equally well done. So in instances where Margaret seems vulnerable, Selina is strong, and where Selina seems on the edge of despair, Margaret assumes the stoic position of self belief.
I found myself believing in Selina's love for Margaret even where Margaret's belief faltered, and she couldn't imagine such a beautiful creature falling in love with such a plain woman as her.

In the end the book was superbly written, perhaps not as taut as Fingersmith but certainly not a disappointing offering from Ms Waters. But I have to say, I like my novels with more light than shadow, and this one had no light. It depressed me so that I was hurrying to end the book so i could be happy again. For those who love to wallow in the dank dark corners of the world without relief, this is a perfect novel. But for me, the shackles became a little too heavy, and I was straining to be free again.

3 stars for Sarah Waters' Affinity.

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