For an orphan girl growing up amid the poverty and criminality of Victorian London’s notorious Lant Street, Susan Trinder has led a remarkably sheltered life, kept safe and protected by her adopted step mother Mrs Sucksby. But when Richard Rivers, or Gentlemen as he is known to them, arrives with a scheme to defraud an heiress of her inheritance, Susan heads out into the world, ready to make her fortune at the expense of the innocent Maud Lilly.
Set in the misty, damp, cold world of mid-nineteenth century England, Fingersmith is a novel that delights in delivering the Victorianna that readers expect. Pickpockets, thieves, great estates that harbour murky secrets, lunatic asylums, all these leitmotifs so familiar from Dickens, Collins, Henry James and the like are delightfully recreated, yet it is to Waters great credit that the classics neither overwhelm nor overshadow Fingersmith. Rather, she uses them as diversions, playing with readers’ expectations, and then subverting them. There are twists here that almost caused my heart to stop. At one point the twist was so unexpectedly decisive that it is impossible to resist the urge to describe the experience as a kind of pleasurable mugging. Sweat beaded on my forehead. It was as though I had downed a few glasses of whiskey, such was the spinning of my head. I had to put down the book and stare at a wall for five minutes, trying to take in the twist.
There are moments in every book that make or break the readers engagement, and there are two here that match or exceed any from the greatest works of literature I have read. The above twist was the first. As a storyteller, there can be few better than Sarah Waters. In the pacing and control of information, she is virtually flawless. Fingersmith manages to be both a page turning romp and a book to enjoy one page at a time. The prose is pleasingly thorough and she inhabits the mind’s of her characters as though they are her own. The characters are horrible at times, and, like the best rogues, that makes them so much more appealing. Indeed, judging from the response of other readers I’ve talked to, Susan must be one of the most popular characters anywhere in literature.
The second moment that made my engagement comes at the end. It is a quiet transformation, not dramatic in a heart-stopping way, but gently seductive. I won’t give away any details of it, other than to say that it provided a pleasingly open ending to what had appeared before then a pretty straight-forward feminist perspective on erotica.
Fingersmith provides a rewarding and utterly compelling reading experience. There is something ceaselessly refreshing and appealing about lesbian romance. I think it is in the general absence of cultural power inequalities that sometimes overwhelm heterosexual romances. This is the first Sarah Waters novel I have read, but it won’t be the last. She is a superb writer who matches character, form, style, themes and content in one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I have had in a long time.
9 out of 10