Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

“Now you know why you are drawn to me – why your flesh comes creeping to mine, and what it comes for. Let it creep.”

From the dark heart of a Victorian prison, disgraced spiritualist Selina Dawes weaves an enigmatic spell. Is she a fraud, or a prodigy? By the time it all begins to matter, you’ll find yourself desperately wanting to believe in magic.

Set in and around the women’s prison at Milbank in the 1870s, Affinity is an eerie and utterly compelling ghost story, a complex and intriguing literary mystery and a poignant love story with an unexpected twist in the tale.

Following the death of her father, Margaret Prior has decided to pursue some ‘good work’ with the lady criminals of one of London’s most notorious gaols. Surrounded by prisoners, murderers and common thieves, Margaret feels herself drawn to one of the prisons more unlikely inmates – the imprisoned spiritualist – Selina Dawes. Sympathetic to the plight of this innocent-seeming girl, Margaret sees herself dispensing guidance and perhaps friendship on her visits, little expecting to find herself dabbling in a twilight world of seances, shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions.

I didn’t expect this book to end the way it did. I knew it would have a twist, but damn… that was a twist indeed.

I have been meaning to read some more Sarah Waters novels since I read The Little Stranger many years ago, and having had an abortive attempt at reading The Night Watch– I believe the library wanted it back and I never tried to finish it. Affinity sounded perfect for me… Victorian, dark, creepy, ghostly, spiritualism, unseemly passions… what more could I hope for?

Well… I would have hoped for a bit more to happen. When stuff did happen, it was sharp, enticing and damn well written. The whole thing was perfectly written and executed… It just felt very, very slow in parts, especially at around the three quarter mark. That’s my only major criticism of the novel, and it is to be expected in an atmospheric Victorian style novel. It’s also the criticism I had for The Little Stranger, but my patience for such things was rather lacking 5 or so years ago!

The characterisation was perfect, something that I have heard Waters is almost consistently good at. I did expect more… shall we say… explicit sexual dalliances, and actual ghosts, but the book didn’t really require them, as the atmosphere brought all that into the fold. The scenes of Margaret walking through London fogs and visiting Millbank prison were so real to me, it felt like I could reach out and touch her, run my hands along the damp walls of the cells and hear the clanging of the prison bell. My heart was breaking for Margaret the whole way through the novel, but I never really warmed to Selina. Maybe I just understood Margaret’s way of thinking more, and wanted to see her have some kind of joy.

I was left feeling like I’m not entirely sure what to make of the twist, but the less I say about it here, the better. It’s rather twisty, and took me by surprise, as I mentioned before. It wasn’t satisfying, in the way that happy endings are, but it definitely fitted the mood of the book and the sense of entrapment and claustrophobia which fills the narrative. I think the lack of a happy ending bothered some reviewers, but it seemed somewhat inevitable to me, particularly in such a dark, atmospheric novel.

This is a book of closeness, ensnarement and damage. One woman is literally imprisoned in a damp cell, while the other is imprisoned by society and her own mind. It is only when she throws convention away that she experiences freedom- a freedom that cannot last. The pace was slow, but the storytelling, characterisation and plot made up for it.

3.5/5 Stars

“Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled?”

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7 thoughts on “Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

  1. I read this a few years ago and think it is one of Waters’ best novels, though it often gets passed over for Fingersmith and The Night Watch (both of which are birlliant too). It’s a more gentle novel, but still as you say very vivid and nuanced. Very glad to see it getting some more attention!

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    • I just stared Fingersmith and am enjoying it so far (only 11 pages in, but I want to read Kate Morton’s new book that arrived today first!) but I think I will now just expect Waters to have slow pacing. I bought The Paying Guests yesterday, so now I *think* I have only one of her books missing from my collection!

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