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Review: Affinity, Sarah Waters

affinityMargaret Prior’s spinsterhood is about to be thrown into glaring relief. Her sister is getting married and her brother has long been wed to Margaret’s friend Helen. As a lady, living in Victorian London, it’s considered an excellent idea for her to devote her time to charitable works. She’d once hoped to spend that time helping her father with his studies, but on his death, her choices have narrowed. She chooses to become a Lady Visitor to Millbank Prison, hoping that her visits will cheer up the inmates. At the prison, she meets Selina Dawes, a spiritualist medium who captivates Margaret almost immediately. As Margaret’s fixation with Selina grows stronger, she begins to fantasize about freeing her, and experiencing a life she’d thought long beyond her reach.

I’ve been thinking about this book ever since I read it – it’s wrapped its way into my head and hasn’t left yet. Sarah Waters never fails to disappoint me with thoughtful, intense books that provide excellent stories, well-rounded characters, and real issues that hover about in my head.

Let’s start with the spiritualist nature of the book, and of Selina herself. Victorians were incredibly keen on ghosts and talking with people who had passed on. In the book I just reviewed, Arthur and George, Julian Barnes also sees Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in this light, a little bit, but Affinity naturally goes into much more depth. Like Waters’s later book, The Little Stranger, this novel plays with the extent to which we can believe in characters who experience phenomena that is beyond their understanding. Selina sends Margaret flowers and locks of her hair, and seems to know far more about Margaret than is possible. Nurtured in that atmosphere, it’s easy for Margaret to believe in everything Selina tells her, which I think reflects the relatively common Victorian attitude to acceptance of the supernatural in their everyday lives.

Margaret also has to deal with the difficult reality of being a lesbian in a world that doesn’t really acknowledge their existence. I mean – we have trouble with this today, and over 100 years ago, the situation was much worse. Her first love, Helen, rejected her for the more traditional route of marriage to man – Margaret’s own brother. Now, Margaret is bereft, between the loss of her beloved father and her lover, leaving a massive gap that a girl like Selina could much more easily enter. After all Margaret’s been through, she’s longing for that love, that acceptance.

The story also alternates with Selina’s life before the prison, so we can learn a little bit about how she got there in the first place. Together with Margaret’s story, these two halves combine to make the final twist come to life as we understand it. That twist is something I sort of anticipated, given I’d been warned by Ana that the book was sad, but I didn’t understand what was going to happen until, finally, it did. It is incredibly effective and well done, regardless. I loved the way the book came together with everything making perfect sense – I don’t mind open endings, but there is something satisfying about a book that tells you where you stand.

Well-constructed, with excellent characters and spectacular atmosphere, this is a book that is well worth your time.

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11 comments to Review: Affinity, Sarah Waters

  • Despite the spooky parts I think I might like this. The twist at the end the fact that book stayed with you caught my interest.

  • This one also stayed with me for a long time after I finished it. The atmosphere is so perfect.

  • This is one that I have had on my shelf for a long time, but haven’t read. I don’t know why that is, really, because everyone I know who has read it has loved it so much. I need to prioritize some of my reading material and make time for this one. It sounds excellent! I loved this review by the way. So powerful and enticing, yet not over the top.

  • I love Sarah Waters. I just recently reviewed this as well. I look forward to the two books I still have by her on my TBR pile.

  • When I read this book a couple years ago, I just … couldn’t get over it. It’s done so well. I need to pick up her latest one.

  • I read this a few weeks ago and liked it a lot. It was my first Sarah Waters but won’t be my last.

  • I really must try reading some more of this author. I’ve only ever read The Little Stranger and while I liked it I didn’t love it, which has put me off reading more. But I’m constantly reading such positive reviews about her other work I feel I should do her justice and try something else.

  • I have had this one on my shelf for an embarrassingly long time. I have an ARC from my bookseller days, if that’s any indication. I so loved Tipping the Velvet and must make time to read her other books. I’m going to start with this one.

  • Amy

    I have this one on my list. I read The Little Stranger earlier this month but didn’t enjoy it like I expected to. I still want to read this one though.

  • This was my first read by Waters but it definitely won’t be my last! The ending took me by complete surprise…and the book has stayed with me every since. Great review!

  • […] Sarah Waters was reviewed at We Be Reading, Medieval Bookworm, and The Whispering of the […]