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Tempted by my first experience of the written work of Sarah Waters, and her book "Affinity", I bought this book with high expectations.
The story is set in London, the year 1862. We are introduced to the characters that are to form the foundation of the book fairly early on, and the reader is taken from the lowly "Borough" area of London where Susan Trinder's formative years are spent in the care of a Mrs. Sucksby who takes in infants, and Mr. Ibbett, who looks after the local Locksmith shop. The characters that build up the texture of the story are colourful and very believeable, and the visit of "The Gentleman" is about to change the fortunes of the young Susan for ever.
The writing of the story can only be described as "delicious". Many writers make the mistake of using many words to say nothing. Sarah Waters uses exquisite detail and in doing so, makes the sense and sensibility of her characters work. Taking the story from the perspectives of the characters involved seems to be a theme in the writing of this author, though it is never dull, never boringly tempting the reader to jump a few paragraphs as other writers do. The detail and description is what makes the story work so well. Let me try and explain. Think of sentiment and also think of reaction and logical thought processes. These are the chocolates that the reader is tempted into tasting, and by goodness, Sarah Waters knows how to convince without overkill, whilst many other writers of this kind of literature don't.
On a scale of ease from a reading point of view, her writing is crystal clear. It doesn't bore the reader, though is not light reading. It took about a week for me to read this book, a few hours a day, but it was worthy of the time I spent, because each little touching of the reader's senses is so clever. Take for example the similarities of circumstance between the two leading ladies of the story, Susan Tinder and a lady that is introduced in the second chapter, both having lost their mothers early within their lives, though one brought up in a "thieving environment", whilst the other experienced her youth within the confines of a mental institution. Each of these main characters is portrayed in first person, and it was a joy to find that although you feel every sentiment and every life changing event of the two ladies, and the perceptions they form of both each other and of characters within their lives, Sarah Waters manages to surprise you with a simple turn of events that is never obvious, even though you feel you know the ladies thought processes so personally.
A thriller, with a plot so thick you cannot guess the outcome, a story of love, deception, hope, despair, anticipation, longing and human greed; I don't want to give away story plot, because that is part of the joy of reading. I guessed the next turn in the story several times, and was wrong, and at each opportunity that the writer had to be predictable, she delighted the reader with yet another complex though convincing scenario. It is a wonderful book, and I shall certainly be buying all of her others, based on the two I have so far read. Her use of perspective is "delicious". There is no other word that adequately describes the adventure of reading or the anticipation of it that I can find, although I am certain that Sarah Waters herself would find a tantalizingly simple one that says more than that. From each characters' perception of what is happening around them and the detail employed by the writer, the reader can see the logic that happens in real life, where two people see the same situation differently, and the texture of characters is deep and has meaning and reason.
It is a story of thievery, humble background, balanced by the background of wealth, both rich in their elements of moral fibre, and delicately woven substance of descriptive imagery.
Of the two books, I must say that I do prefer "Affinity", not because of any difference in the style of writing, but in that "Affinity" was a more personal read in that it touched the supernatural which intrigued me more. This book has equal merits in both its' written style and what it offers the reader, and has been televised by the BBC, although I would never watch it, as I would not wish for the written word to be tainted by imagery that I now see as part and parcel of the story as read by me. One criticism was the authors' choice of name for the character "Susan", since I must admit to cringing a little at the use of such a seemingly modern name. It didn't seem to fit.
Would I recommend the purchase of the book ? Yes, I would. Sarah Waters is a classical author and worth spending money on. Don't borrow it from the library. Be proud to own a piece of writing history as it is astounding.
Paperback: 560 pages Publisher: Virago Press Ltd (3 Feb 2003) Language English ISBN: 1860498833 Available from Amazon from 1.23 GPB, though new at 6.39 GPB and a bargain at that. Had I been more careful in my choice, I think I would have bought the hardback as I treasure books of this standard.
Hardcover: 416 pages Publisher: Virago Press Ltd (4 Feb 2002) Language English ISBN: 1860498825 Priced at 8.57 GBP new.