In a lot of ways, I am neither here nor there with Sarah Waters. By that I mean, I either really love her books, like Fingersmith and The Night Watch or I really, really don't like them at all like Tipping the Velvet and the incredibly boring (by my estimation only) The Little Stranger, which honestly put me to sleep more than scared the bejeezus out of me, as was probably intended. So, I've had Affinity languishing on my shelves for years. And, at first, I thought it was going to go the way of The Little Stranger, but I actually ended up quite enjoying the novel.
Set in the 1870s in London at the height of the spiritualist craze, the novel's protagonist, Margaret, falls head over heals for an inmate at Millbank prison. Selina's an infamous spiritualist who finds herself in hot water after her patron dies unexpectedly following a fairly intense visit from "beyond." Being the cynic that I am, of course, you know that Margaret's being swindled, but it's a long con, and a devastating one when you look at the novel in terms of options for women, single women, of her class, stature and sexual orientation. So, the harder Margaret falls for Selina, and her impressive parlour tricks, the more you, the reader, realize that it's all going to turn out very, very poorly for the trusting, intelligent, yet wholly gullible girl.
Devastated by the loss of her beloved father, Margaret's an easy target. Set adrift by lack of options, she will neither marry but nor does she want to spend the rest of her life caring for her demanding, controlling and often obnoxious mother. She sees her mother growing older and more demanding, can't bear a life of calling cards and visits, and longs to visit Italy. But the upper middle classes aren't the place for women to go travelling alone, and without a sustainable relationship, Margaret's trapped in her drafty house with only her diary, and her visits to Millbank prison, to keep her sane.
The novel speeds along and the format suits the subject matter impressively. Interspersed with Margaret's own journal/diary entries, you get more and more backstory from Selina. Are her psychic powers authentic? Can she truly call upon the spirits to come? Or is it all just a ruse? Waters is careful to parcel out the truth and the tricks throughout the narrative in a way that intends to keep one guessing but it's fairly obvious early on what's going to happen. Knowing that Margaret's being duped didn't lessen the impact of the novel but increases the emotional quotient -- you are that much more involved when it gets to the end.
All in all, I am glad I stuck with Affinity through the wee hours. I almost abandoned it halfway through and picked up AS Byatt's latest book, which I am starting this evening. And, it cleared yet another book off my shelves!