Friday, November 1, 2013

Book Review: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is a classic. It's a historical lesbian crime novel of trickery and intrigue and madness and gentry and the London underworld, and it's so much not what I expected The impression I had of Fingersmith was of a London girl who gets talked into a scheme by a slick conman associate to go somehow trick some poor naive rich girl into losing her fortune. And that it ended badly and was probably a beautifully written but depressing slide into closer affection and inevitable betrayal, and possible the tragic death of one of the girls. I never really felt up to a whole book of that. But fortunately, that was absolutely not what it was.

Oh, the first part's true enough, it's the entire premise of the book, but after that? No. That's when everything changes. The elaborate scheme based on entrapping the naive rich girl, with the accidental seduction between the two, was only the beginning. It was, in fact, the context, the first act, the introduction to the real story.

I picked it up because a very nice reader contacted me to point out that I hadn't reviewed any of Sarah Water's most famous historical novels, and I promptly rushed out and borrowed a copy. And then spent about three weeks reading it in bits and pieces (I've had a busy month! I'd normally have finished it in a day). Fortunately, it held up both to the piecemeal sampling, and the final 'devouring of the last third in one go'. It's a pretty dense novel, with lots of vocabulary and settings and things to keep track of (like who knew what), but the cast is a reasonable size and the characters are distinctive.

It's also one of those stories that has some major plot twists, and it really changes the story if you know what comes next, so please understand that this is one of those rare reviews that doesn't analyse the entire book in detail because TWO THIRDS OF IT IS SPOILER. Twice. Yes, twice. This book is like Inception written by Charles Dickens. None of our characters really know what's going on, they all betray each other at some point, and our narrators are textbook unreliable.


I'm going to summarise here because two thirds of this book is SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER.

Our story opens with young Susan, a relatively sheltered young woman from a house of London crime, who grew up surrounded by farmed babies, the treasure of old and formidable Mrs. Sucksby, in the midst of thieves and rogues. One particular rogue, the Gentleman, a most definitely "fancy" individual,  shows up as soon as we finally get through Sue's childhood history. He has a most wicked plan to entrap a naive heiress into the coils of marriage, gain her enormous fortune from her reclusive, bookish uncle and then abandon her to a madhouse. He would, of course, share this considerable fortune with the girl who helped him set all this up. Sue's a bit dubious, but under the pressure of expectations from her foster family and a fairly marked lack of higher critical thinking skills or heroic urges (something not exactly rewarded in the muck of London crime), signs up and transforms into a helpful, if slightly inept maid.

She then travels out to the secluded mansion, falls into the stultifying pattern of life there, and becomes the trusted companion to the odd, helpless and sweet Maud. Poor Maud is kept Lolita-style in child fashion by her uncle, is bored and miserable, and sees the unenticing marriage as an escape from it all. With the spectre of her mad mother looming over her, her days tread out in identical, endless, hours. She seizes on the Gentleman as her one chance of freedom, and Sue falls into the role of her maid and confidante as if born to it.

And then Stuff Happens, we get a narrator switch (this was Sue's story up until now), we find out what else is going on, and then we're back to Sue again to finish off the story in part three. Sue, it should be noted, still does not know everything.

 We spend more time in Sue's head, which is a good thing, as she's the more active, passionate character, making for a more engaging story. She's also limited in her outlook, and quite self interested, though she matures and grows as a person. Maud is clever, but stilted and reserved, and in many ways, her most interesting aspects are her past and what it has made of her, not her actual personality. This does shift somewhat; she's spent her life shutting down on tantrums and emotions as a defense mechanism, and we do see her start adjusting to the changes. It should be mentioned that they're both teenagers, though they feel older and are, partly due to the times, treated as adults. However, emotionally, they clearly haven't quite reached full maturity.

I will say that they do end up together, on the last flipping page, that Sue is pretty focussed on herself whereas Maud figures out pretty early on that she's in love and doesn't mind, and that they spend the entire book being deceptive, either through dislike and ulterior motives or through self sacrifice. And this is not an innocent book, in the least.

And that, I'm afraid, is where I must leave you, as the rest is all misleading or the most dreadful of spoilers. Suffice to say that neither girl is who they think they are, nor who the other thinks they are, which ends up confusing both of them quite a bit (though Sue gets the worst of it), and it ends up a series of betrayals and misadventures and misery, before they are finally in each other's arms. And that as high minded as this book may originally appear, it turns out that most of its characters are pretty sordid in various entertaining and disturbing ways.

Writing style and readability
Written in alternating first person segments, the pacing seems a little peculiar sometimes, dragging in some places and skipping others. It fits together more as you keep reading though, with gaps being filled in and alternate perspectives shared, rewriting and building a stronger story as you read.

It was a little dense and slow moving in places, especially at the beginning, as we are told the story at length of Susan's upbringing and involvement in the plot. I don't think it sped up much throughout the story, but I got used to it. It's the sort of book that, once you are into it, is easy to stop and start with, and rewards your investment. I was enjoying it much, much more halfway through than I was at the start.

There's a fair bit of historical language and specific ways of speaking for certain characters, which also throws a bit of a learning curve at you, but it's readable, and after a while, isn't a problem.

Historical accuracy
The author is generally lauded for her historical research, and I'm no expert to contradict. As far as I can tell, the setting and the story was both accurate and plausible, and I spent the entire story quite aware that I was in Victorian England. We get to see rich places and poor places, madhouses and *coughporncough* bookstores, and it's always believable.

I really liked how basically ordinary both the girls were, and how obvious that diet and clothing made most of the difference. Sometimes the level of detail is just too much, but we're helped along by one girl or the other usually being overwhelmed with the unfamiliarity of it all. It certainly feels quite Dickensian.

Go read this book. It's a classic of the lesbian literature scene, it's a fascinating historical crime thriller, and it is full of interesting plots and psychology and double meanings and secrets. The underlying premise is slightly fantastical, Princess and the Pauper style, but not as fantastical as what most of the characters think is happening most of the time.

Fingersmith is available as both an eBook and a real book from Amazon. 
It has also been made into a popular film.

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  1. Nice review. I just ordered FingerSmith, having completed Water's The Paying Guests. The later I loved. Hoping FingerSmith is as rich a read.

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