Review of AFFINITY by SARAH WATERS
Lady Margaret Prior doesn’t fit in with respectable Victorian society. She refuses to marry a man (She prefers women.) and her recent suicide attempt is simply intolerable. Of course, her most damning trait is that she speaks her mind.
At the book’s opening, Margaret is transitioning back into society after her breakdown (an emotional collapse initiated, we learn, by her lover leaving Margaret to marry her brother). Margaret starts visiting a nearby prison, specifically the women’s wards. Officially, the visits are for intellectual betterment and research purposes in understanding the psychology behind these women so different from herself. Many even muse that hopefully, as a lady, she will have a positive effect on the poor, piteous women she visits. However, the astute reader will pick up long before Margaret states it explicitly that she’s drawn to where she feels she rightfully belongs. She meets women who are in the prison as punishment for attempting suicide, commoner women. Margaret knows she only avoided the exact same fate because she’s a lady.
I normally don’t value setting as much in a novel as other factors, but the era (time more than location) is essential to this story. Margaret lives in a suffocating, restricting society. I fear if I were only a slightly more empathetic person I could have panic attacks just imagining myself in her life. There’s an undercurrent of danger woven throughout every page, the danger that one wrong step in proper society could cast Margaret out. Not “out” to mean merely shunned and ignored, but “out” to mean locked away in prison where she can’t bother others with her contrary opinions and actions.
At the prison, Margaret meets a woman named Selina, who claims to be a medium. During a séance, an elderly patron was murdered and a young women molested. By a naughty ghost, Selina claims. Of course, that explanation doesn’t convince respectable society and Selina is sent to Millbank prison where she meets Margaret. Lady Margaret doesn’t buy Selina’s story either...at first. Then strange things start happening, things Selina couldn’t possibly do without aide, of spirits she insists. Margaret finds gifts left in her room from Selina, who can’t possibly have sent them from prison, and when she visits Selina knows things she can’t about Margaret’s past. Against all logic, Margaret starts to wonder if Selina is an innocent victim who has been telling the truth all along.
My only complaint with this otherwise wonderful novel is with the final twists near the end. I saw certain revelations coming from maybe a quarter through the novel and felt relieved when I thought the author wasn’t going down that obvious route. That being said, I think the twists might be more obvious as a writer myself. Thematically, the developments are meaningful and very interesting for discussion, not to mention well-handled. However, as a writer it seemed the natural, predictable way to turn the story and I had hoped for something more subversive.
Like many good ghost stories, AFFINITY haunts, leaving a king of lingering imprinted emotion even after finishing the book.