AFFINITY by Sarah Waters

Halloween may be over, but the cold weather still inspires plenty of clichés about cozy-ing up and reading a spooky story. One of our most beloved Christmas stories (Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”) is a ghost story, after all. Plus, I was a little late on finishing up my Halloween reading. So, justifications duly stammered, let’s talk about Affinity by Sarah Waters.

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Sarah Waters is an author I’ve been looking forward to for a long time. Her reputation as someone who takes tried-and-true Victorian settings and themes and centers them around same-sex female relationships was immediately appealing. She is probably most famous for Tipping the Velvet, a historical novel set in a Victorian circus. I can see how that phrase sounds delicious, but I’ll admit, the circus motif has never really done much for me. A creepy story about a spiritualist, set in a creepy prison, sounded more in my wheelhouse.

This story is told from the perspective of Margaret Prior, set up as the pages of her own diary. After her father’s death, her mental health took a steep and frightening dip, and as part of her recovery, she wants to focus her attention elsewhere. She decides to become a visitor for the women’s prison Millbank, where it will be her duty to talk with the inmates housed there, coaxing them into rehabilitation. She becomes interested in the prisoner Selina Dawes, a medium who seems to be capable of strange things. The reader also gets fleeting glimpses into Selina’s old journal entries, all from before the incident that sent her to Millbank. Margaret becomes determined to learn more about Selina, and as she does, she finds her interest turning into attraction. Selina becomes interested in Margaret as well, and seems to know her deepest, most intimate secrets, making Margaret wonder if the spirits Selina claims to commune with could be real.

The characters in this story were the most compelling aspect. Margaret is a wonderful narrator, and her relationship to her brother’s wife (her own ex-lover) is heartbreaking. I try not to get too attached to characters in fiction (very few stories are written about a good day), but I couldn’t help but root for Margaret throughout. This factor made the ending of the story a bit sour for me. I won’t spoil it here, but I really wanted more for this character. At the same time, as a reader, I experienced the epiphanies and heartbreak right in step with her, making it a well-crafted ending. In my selfish heart, though, I wanted the dull, uninteresting, happy ending, just this once.

The setting of this book is also engaging. I love reading about historical periods that I haven’t learned much about, and other than the Civil War, I have to admit that the 1800s is a bit of a hazy, swirling mass to me (it seemed that all my history classes either didn’t quite make it past the Revolutionary War or started with the Great Depression). I enjoyed this setting, particularly the focus on spiritualism. It was really interesting reading this book after having read Mary Roach’s Spook and learning about the tricks of the trade. This book handles this subject well, as skeptics and believers alike can be carried through the plot; the text leaves the more supernatural elements a little up to interpretation, which adds to the overall mystery.

All in all, this was an enjoyable novel, one that felt classic and contemporary at the same time. I have a feeling that it won’t end up being my favorite Sarah Waters novel, but it did leave me wanting to read more of her oeuvre to find out.

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