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Affinity Paperback – January 8, 2002
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Affinity is a tale of power and possession that Henry James himself might admire. In her first novel, Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters explored secrets and longing--capping off this lesbian romp with a utopian-socialist vision. Her intricate follow-up is just as sensual but infinitely darker, its moral more difficult to descry. Its stylistic and psychological rewards, however, are visible at every turn, the author's persuasive imagination matched by her gift for storytelling.
In late September 1874, Margaret Prior makes her way through the pentagons of London's Millbank Prison, a place of fearful symmetry and endless corridors. This plain woman on the verge of 30 has come to comfort those behind bars, several of whom Waters brings to instant, sad life. And our Lady Visitor plans to take her role dead seriously, having recovered from two years of nervous indolence in her family's Chelsea house. One person, however, makes her job a passion. Opening an inspection slit (or "eye" as these devices are known), Margaret hears "a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story." Peering inward, she's confronted by the most erotic of visions--a woman turned toward the sun, caressing her cheek with a forbidden violet: "As I watched, she put the flower to her lips, and breathed upon it, and the purple of the petals gave a quiver and seemed to glow..."
Selina Dawes may indeed have the face of a Crivelli angel, but this medium is in for fraud and assault, her last session having gone very badly indeed. Suffice it to say that the first full encounter between these two very different women is enthralling. "You think spiritualism a kind of fancy," Selina riddles. "Doesn't it seem to you, now you are here, that anything might be real, since Millbank is?" And soon enough Margaret receives several viable signs of the supernatural: a locket disappears from her room, flowers mysteriously appear, and her dazzling friend knows everything about her. Strangest of all, Selina seems to love her.
As Margaret records her weekly prison forays, her own past comes into focus, notably her plans to travel to Italy with her first love (who is now her sister-in-law). But her current journal, she convinces herself, is to be very different from her last one, which "took as long to burn as human hearts, they say, do take." Meanwhile, Waters offers a narrative two-for-one, placing Margaret's diary cheek by jowl with Selina's chronicle of her pre-Millbank existence. This dispassionate, staccato record initially suggests that we can separate truth from desire. Or can we? What Waters's haunting creation leaves us with is a more painful reality--that knowledge and belief are entirely different things. --Kerry Fried --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From The New Yorker
Her first, Tipping the Velvet, was good; her second is just terrific. Moody, haunting, and haunted (it's about love among Victorian spiritualists), Affinity is two parts Wilkie Collins, with whose The Woman in White it shares an obsession with prisons, madness, journal-keeping, and elaborate, carefully engineered deceits; and just a dash of Jeanette Winterson for up-to-the-minute lesbian-historical-fiction flavor. ("He, she--you ought to know that in the spheres there are no differences like that.") --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
I don't want to say much more about the plot for fear of giving something away. But let me say that I loved this book. It takes place in Victorian London, it has a Dickensian prison and wardens. It has psychics and mediums. Margaret is a lonely character. She does not want to marry or have children. She is haunted by her love for Helen and desperately sad over the loss of her intellectual father, the only one who understood her.
Margaret's story alternates with that of Selina's and we see how she ended up in prison.
Though I was not a fan of Waters' The Little Stranger which everyone else raved about, I thought Affinity was incredibly well-written, with fleshed out characters and a brilliant plot. Her descriptions of Millbank Prison, the matrons in charge of the women prisoners, and the prisoners themselves are very well researched, as are stories of the spiritualist community.
This book is a must, must read! It is very atmospheric and Gothic-like. In case I didn't mention it, I loved it.
my rating 5/5
If you are looking to buy this book, you probably have a good idea if you'll like this or not. If you've enjoyed Sarah Water's other novels, you'll likely enjoy this one as well. If you haven't enjoyed her other novels, there really isn't much to set this apart from her others that would suggest you like it.
If you haven't read Waters before, you can expect this novel to be full of mistaken identities, twists and turns, gloriously angst soaked passages of Victorian lesbianism, and probing psychological portraits. If Charles Dickens had wanted to write about lesbians, he would have come up with books much like Sarah Waters.
If you are looking to start off with Waters, I wouldn't necessarily start with this one. Check out Tipping the Velvet for an easy intro, or the recently published "The Paying Guests" for a look at what I think is Waters at the height of her powers. Then dip back to Affinity. It's well worth it.