Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

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.

Fingersmith was first published by Virago in 2002. The edition pictured here is the current Virago paperback, published 2003, ISBN 9781860498831, 548pp.

10 comments on “Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

  1. Jackie
    May 5, 2011

    What a great review! I agree that the author is a joy to read, I’ve read a couple of her others & she’s great at complex story lines with multiple characters, i never get mixed up as I do with some others who try the same.
    I agree that there are some startling twists in this book, I really wasn’t sure where it was going to end up. This book stands along with “The Crimson Petal & the White” in a more gritty & realistic depiction of Victorian times and just how powerless women were in those days.

  2. annebrooke
    May 6, 2011

    I do so love this author – and thoroughly enjoyed this novel – so great to see it reviewed here :)

    Anne
    xxx

  3. Moira
    May 6, 2011

    I’ve never read any Sarah Waters and I now feel that I have to do something about that. Great review, Sam. definitely sounds like one I’d enjoy very much. I’m a great girl for a bit of Victorian gothic ..

  4. SamRuddock
    May 6, 2011

    Which others have you read, Jackie? Do you have any particular to recommend? I still haven’t started watching The Crimson Petal and the White that has just been on TV here – that might be something for this evening I think!

    Can’t beat Victorian gothic, Moira! Did you get around to trying The Quincunx?

  5. Nikki
    May 8, 2011

    I went through a slight Waters obsession after I read The Little Stranger, reading everything I could lay my hands on. This was one I particularly enjoyed, although I’d seen the adaptation which was a shame because the twists are SO GOOD. The Night Watch is possibly my favourite Waters, though I haven’t yet read Affinity or Tipping the Velvet.

  6. Laura Tisdall
    May 8, 2011

    I’ve read all of Sarah Waters’ novels (yes, I’m a little obsessed) and agree with Nikki that ‘The Night Watch’ is her strongest yet, although ‘The Little Stranger’ comes close. But ‘Affinity’ is so good as well… you’re really spoilt for choice! The only one I wouldn’t rank as highly is ‘Tipping the Velvet’, which is a fun romp, but not much more than that. But then as I would probably read the back of a cereal packet written by Sarah Waters (hmm, that would be amusing…) that’s hardly a damning comment from me…

  7. Sam Ruddock
    May 8, 2011

    Thanks for all the recommendations! Sounds like Night Watch might have to be my next read!

  8. Jackie
    May 8, 2011

    I couldn’t recall the title of her WW2 book until Nikki & Laura T mentioned it. That was a good one!

  9. Katherine Howell
    May 9, 2011

    A book that’s being compared here in Australia to Waters’ work is Jesse Blackadder’s ‘The Raven’s Heart’. http://www.jesseblackadder.com/Jesse_Blackadder1/The_Ravens_Heart.html I read it in ms form and loooved it.

    (Disclaimer – we are friends :) )

  10. Pingback: Weekly Link Round Up « The Lesbrary

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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