Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reading now: Affinity - a bit of a review

Twenty-something Margaret Prior comes from one of London's finer families, but that doesn't protect her from suffering a very common malady: a broken heart. She attempts suicide by overdosing on laudanum and as part of her therapy following this attempt, she volunteers to visit inmates on the women's ward at nearby Millbank prison. Here she finds herself mingling with a wide array of women whose social backgrounds range from street beggars to London's upper crust. Their stories are as equally diverse and intriguing as they are suspect, from the petty thieves who stole food to assuage their hunger to cold-blooded murderers who killed for little more than revenge.

Although the plights of these sad women help take Margaret's mind off her broken heart, she can't completely put her lover out of her mind. Complicating that problem are two things. The first is that Margaret can talk to no one about her affair and is forced to keep her battered emotions bottled up inside to avoid a heinous scandal. The second is the stress of proximity, for her lover is another woman, one who is about to marry Margaret's brother. Desperate to get past her pain, Margaret throws herself into the prison environment and soon becomes curiously drawn to one young woman who, like most of the others, declares her innocence. But this woman, Selina Dawes, is intriguingly different.

For one thing, Selina claims to be a spiritualist and blames the crime for which she is being punished -- fraud and battery -- on a ghost. At first Margaret thinks this is just another story -- albeit a more inventive one than most -- designed to cover up true guilt. But before long, Margaret has reason to rethink things. First she delves into Selina's background and discovers several things that lend credence to Selina's claims. Then mysterious things start to happen that seem to support the existence of a spiritual world. Selina demonstrates her intimate knowledge of happenings in Margaret's life -- things she has no way of knowing. Plus, certain items appear -- a bloody collar and a braided hank of hair -- and disappear -- Margaret's favorite, treasured locket. Convinced that Selina is indeed innocent, and growing more captivated by this enigmatic woman with each passing day, Margaret thinks up a plan for escape from Millbank, one that will allow her and Selina to be together. But her plans go horribly awry and set both women on a devastating course of hope and betrayal that will leave one of them forever changed.

I'm about 100 pages in now, and already have a mind filled with questions.
What did Margaret Prior do to herself?
What kind of illness did she have?
How was the relationship with her father and the circumstances of his death?
What happened between her and Helen?

Selena is a recurring character in the novel, not sure if she is meant as a second protagonist or the antagonist. She could be the latter, because otherwise the occupation still needs to be filled.

I'm aware that most novels of Sarah Waters are slowpaced. I've read The Little Stranger and The Night Watch, and both novels have a certain laziness in building up a suspense. Waters mainly focusses on setting the mood right and then lets her characters do the things they were meant to do.
In this novel, the 19th century London is depicted stylishly. There's a passage about how the mist comes upon London in early October and it actually takes your breath away (as it must have been back then, albeit in a slightly different way).
Margaret remains a mystery still. I'm intrigued, what can I say.

On with the show!!