affinity“I was never so frightened as I am now.”

I occasionally catch myself saying, perhaps somewhat boastfully, that I’ll read anything. I’m usually only moments later forced to eat my words. Sarah Waters is, of course, an author whose name I know but historical fiction is something that I would never buy for myself. Fortunately, for Valentine’s Day this year, the other half and I bought one another books that we loved for the other to read, in an attempt I suppose to get to know each other better and understand where we’re coming from, via a literary perspective.

And so this is how I found myself suddenly reading Waters. Affinity is not one of hers I knew (although every time I’ve stepped into a bookshop in the last few years I swear I’ve seen at least ten copies of The Little Stranger on display) so I went into it basically blind, going only on the blurb.

Affinity transports us to London in the 1870s, a city shrouded in thick, choking fog and a class system so divided that it may already be the Morlocks and Eloi. The story has two narrators. The first is Margaret Prior, a well-to-do young lady who is struggling to deal with the sudden death of her father. She is perhaps a little disturbed and, to take her mind from her boring life – and to escape the endless wedding preparations of her sister Pris – becomes a Lady Visitor to the women’s prison of Millbank, attending to some of the inmates and hearing their stories, giving them a chance to speak out. One of these is Selina Dawes, a spiritualist who has been imprisoned for attacking a young girl and killing the lady she lived with. She, however, claims that she is innocent, and that the actions were performed by the spirit folk, in particular one brutish and dangerous spirit called Peter Quick.

Selina is the second narrator, although her chapters reveal what happened before she was put in gaol, explaining how she got herself mixed up in the sorry mess and how she developed her skills as a spiritualist. She learns tricks to make people believe that she is summoning those from beyond the mortal realm, but there’s a certain ambiguity about the whole thing – is she entirely a fraud, or is there some truth to what she says?

Margaret is captivated by Selina and, in a state of emotional weakness, begins to fall in love with her. Selina reciprocates her feelings and the soon neither can sleep or function because they are consumed with thoughts of the others. Selina begins using her powers to send gifts to Margaret, who is at first scared, but later realises that she cannot live without Selina. A plan begins to form, but escaping from gaol is not easy – not even with the guide of the spirits…

It’s a slow burner and takes a long while to get going, but once it does, it’s definitely enjoyable, and the twist at the end is a wonderful pay off. I had no idea where it was going until it happened, although I had a suspicion that, thankfully, turned out to be wrong. There is much ambiguity within the novel, both in the relationship between the main characters (this is, of course, Victorian London, and lesbianism isn’t exactly freely discussed) and in the talents of the spiritualists. Is Peter Quick real, or is he entirely constructed from Selina’s mind? There’s potentially a case for both sides of the argument, and Waters is certainly not going to give away all the answers.

The book also is notable for containing very few male characters of any importance. There are probably only five or six that recieve names and any sort of description, compared to the scores of women prisoners, wardens, family members, visitors to Selina’s “dark circles” and servants that populate the novel. This merely adds another reminder to us that this is a story about women and their struggle. Britain at this time is not yet as liberal as it will become (and, let’s be honest, we’ve still got quite some way to go), and the stress of hiding her true self does some dreadful things to Margaret. I’d be hard-pushed to call it a love story. It shows the more dangerous, but just as realistic side of love – all-consuming, all-powerful and prone to making even the most innocent-seeming people perform deeds that don’t align with their moral code.

All in all, it’s captivating enough to be a page turner, but don’t go into it for a quick read. The descriptions are great, and the characters realised enough – some more than others, of course, depending on their narrative importance – and the dense text sucks you into the horror that is Millbank prison. A nice touch is also the occasional mention of the cloying fog that shrouds the city, further emphasising that London is all about secrets and there is always something hidden from view. So while it’s a somewhat claustrophobic novel, and I wouldn’t say it’s particularly happy either, it’s well-written, powerful and generally a very interesting read.