Fingersmith by Sarah Waters: Book Review

It is always a wonderful feeling when you pick up a book and slowly realise that it is good, that is is really good. So good in fact that you feel like you haven’t read something like this in a while. A book which gives you great faith in the abilities of the writer whom you, immediately upon finishing it, proceed to investigate further and promise yourself to follow closely from henceforth. Such was my experience with Fingersmith by the great Sarah Waters.

Waters is an established author of lesbian historical fiction, best known for her first novel Tipping the Velvet as well as subsequent novels, many of which have been nominated for prestigious literary awards such as the Man Booker and the Orange Prize. She is referred to as that “lesbian writer”, a title she embraces with humour and pride. As such, it is strange how I have managed to avoid reading any of her novels for years now.

Recently though, I was in the mood for a good lesbian story, a story in which the lesbian part was central to the plot instead of being just a fact for a character, left once aknowledged on the sidelines. I decided to sent an e-mail to Steve Donoghue, a booktuber who reads a bazillion books per year and who claims to give great book recommendations. He sent me back two recommendations, the first of which was Fingersmith. I had the book on my shelves so I thought the time has come for me to see if this Sarah Waters person is indeed worth all the praise. Suffice to say, Steve was right, his recommendation hit bullseye and yes, Sarah Waters is indeed great.

The story takes place in the early 1860’s and it starts in London, in a house on Lant Street where Mr. Ibbs and Mrs Sucksby are running a thieving business and an infant farm. Questionable characters of all ages pass daily through the back door and into Mr Ibb’s shop where they sell their latest stolen goods while the upper floor of the house is echoing the sound of crying infants, come from mothers who left them for one reason or another in the care of Mrs Sucksby who is none too eager to raise them and then sell them for a profit. Children come and go from this house but one always remains. Sue Trinder is the protagonist of the story, a girl who Mrs Sucksby has taken under her wing and raised her with love and care, keeping her protected and away from harm’s way. Sue’s mother was hanged charged as a murderess when Sue was a baby. The hanging place is visible from the window of the house on Lant street and Sue grew up being teased and bullied for her bad blood and a constant reminder out her window of her mother’s fate.

One day a friend of the house known as ” Gentleman” due to his good and noble looks enters the house with a scheme for making both himself and Sue rich. He tells them all of a big house in Briar where a naive girl, Miss Maud Lilly lives with her uncle. She is an orphan too and she has a great fortune to her name. However, she cannot touch the money until she is married. Gentleman had worked his way into becoming her painting tutor but Maud’s maid has taken sick. Now Gentleman’s plans to seduce Maud to be his wife have stopped since they are not able to continue their painting lessons without the presence of Maud’s maid. But, if Sue would pose as a maid and come and work for Miss Lilly, Gentleman could get back to working on seducing Miss Lilly into marrying him, secretly of course, for her uncle would never approve of such a thing. Once Gentleman stole Miss Lilly away from the Briar and legally married her, he would lock her up in a mental institution claiming her sick in her mind and keep her money for himself. If Sue was to help Gentleman in his scheme, working as Miss Lilly’s maid and nudging her into Gentleman’s arms she would get 3000 pounds. This is a great amount of money and Sue could not possibly say no to such a sound plan to make herself and Mrs Sucksby so wealthy. Soon after she gets training to be a maid by Gentleman, she is on a train to Briar and the story takes off from there.

It is often the case with books that you either get a story focused on characters or a story focused on the plot with the scale tipping one way or the other according to the author’s capabilities. I was ecstatic to find a book that has both. The book focuses on the two girls, Maud and Sue and allows the reader to really get to know them as people in a very intimate and realistic way. And they do have an extraordinary story to tell. The plot is blow after blow after blow for the two girls. Waters does such a great job with painting who these girls are, where they have come from, what they want and why they act the way they do that you come to care about both of them as if they were friends. And is there a better story than one in which you root for the characters, you hurt when they hurt, you wish for their suffering to end and hope for an outcome that will make them, and you, happy? Waters plays with perceptions of who we think people are and deceives both the reader and the characters in a game that ends in a lesson: follow your heart and you can achieve anything you want.

“I felt that thread that had come between us, tugging, tugging at my heart – so hard, it hurt me. A hundred times I almost rose, almost went in to her; a hundred times I thought, Go to her! Why are you waiting? Go back to her side! But every time, I thought of what would happen if I did. I knew that I couldn’t lie beside her, without wanting to touch her. I couldn’t have felt her breath upon my mouth, without wanting to kiss her. And I couldn’t have kissed her, without wanting to save her.” 

It is truly well done, an epic in its own scale that seems small in today’s standards but so grand in the eyes of these two girls. The best kinds of books are those which create a bond between reader and the characters so that when you turn the final pages you feel you are parting with friends. It is with this feeling I closed the book, knowing however that Sue and Maud will stay with me for a long long time.

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