Sunday, February 7, 2010
3. Affinity, by Sarah Waters
I first met Sarah Waters work in Fingersmith, her very Dickensian novel, and one that I adored. Affinity is even better.
Margaret Prior is a young upper-class Victorian woman. Following her recovery from a suicide attempt, she engages in the "good work" of a prison visitor to the women's prison at Millbank. There, she is drawn to Selina Dawes, a medium who has been convicted of assault following a séance that ended with her mentor dead and a young woman traumatized.
The book is told in two alternating stories: that of Selina, telling of the events leading to the fateful night, and that of Margaret, beginning as she starts her prison visits. Gradually, we learn a great deal about Margaret. Her father was a scholar of Renaissance art, she his amanuensis. Her intellectual leanings made her feel a bit out of place from the rest of her family, and her father's death hit her hard. The loss of the long longed-for trip to Italy is compounded by the fact that her about-to-be-married sister is to honeymoon there, and her socially conforming mother cannot provide the sympathy or empathy she needs. All the more so because yet another loss cannot be spoken of. How can she reveal that she and her brother's wife were once, it seems, more than friends? Her inner thoughts, her psychology, unfold.
Selina is not opened to us so much. Her story is more of action. "This is what happened, this is what I learned, this is what I did." Not so much of "this is what I thought", "this is how I feel". Miss Selina Dawes, medium, becomes aware of her spiritualist powers, is taken up by the community and learns how to use those powers, becomes the protegée of the wealthy Mrs. Brink and ends up in prison. Selina comes to us more through Margaret's reaction to her than through herself.
Waters' descriptive abilities are extraordinary. Her limning of the physical and psychological constraints of Millbank prison are dead on. And this book contains what may be one of the creepiest passages of writing I have ever read. Margaret has gone to a spiritualist society, where she has seen moulds of human parts, including one which is supposed to be the hand of Dawes' spirit guide, Peter Quick. She imagines that hand coming to visit Selina in prison. "It would be silent, dark and very still; the shelves of moulds, however, might not lie still. The wax might ripple. The lips upon the spirit-face might twitch, and the eyelids roll; the dimple upon the baby's arm would grow deeper as the arm unfolded -- so I saw it now, in Selina's cell, as I stepped form her and shuddered. The swollen fingers of Peter Quick's fist -- I saw, them, I saw them! -- were uncurling, and flexing. Now the hand was inching its way cross the shelf, the fingers drawing the palm over the wood. Now they were parting the cabinet doors -- they left smears upon the glass."
Note the name: Peter Quick. That's no accident. Affinity's ambivalence over the question of "ghosts or madness", its exploration of psychological control, of possession, of power relationships, owes a good deal to Henry James The Turn of the Screw.
This is a stunning novel. And the end will rip you up.