Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

“We have a name for your disease. We call it a hyper-aesthetic one. You have been encouraged to over-indulge yourself in literature; and have inflamed your organs of fancy.”

Sue Trinder is an orphan, left as an infant in the care of Mrs. Sucksby, a “baby farmer,” who raised her with unusual tenderness, as if Sue were her own. Mrs. Sucksby’s household, with its fussy babies calmed with doses of gin, also hosts a transient family of petty thieves—fingersmiths—for whom this house in the heart of a mean London slum is home.

One day, the most beloved thief of all arrives—Gentleman, an elegant con man, who carries with him an enticing proposition for Sue: If she wins a position as the maid to Maud Lilly, a naïve gentlewoman, and aids Gentleman in her seduction, then they will all share in Maud’s vast inheritance. Once the inheritance is secured, Maud will be disposed of—passed off as mad, and made to live out the rest of her days in a lunatic asylum.

With dreams of paying back the kindness of her adopted family, Sue agrees to the plan. Once in, however, Sue begins to pity her helpless mark and care for Maud Lilly in unexpected ways…But no one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals. 

A fingersmith is a pickpocket, and Oliver Twist is explicitly mentioned on the first page (and a couple of times thereafter). Unsurprising but harmless.

“It was like kissing the darkness. As if the darkness had life, had a shape, had taste, was warm and glib.”

I loved the gothic atmosphere and the 1890’s allure that comes with candles and horse-drawn carriages. There are quite a few ghost-story tropes, but only in a couple of chapters: fog, a mysterious candlelit figure at a window, clocks striking in a dilapidated house, nightmares… etc.

This book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the Orange Prize and her PhD thesis even covers a key subject of this book.

The Bad bits:

I’ve been reading this book for a long time.

I suppose that starting sentence is not the best way to advertise it but it was long and wordy and it dragged sometimes. My main complaint is that there was a lot of repetition. At some point we have a different perspective to the same plot and it could have been good but after awhile it just read a bit tedious. It wasn’t done badly but I suppose it’s just one of those things where I subjectively would have preferred a different approach.

This novel is a lesbian dickens and since Dickens is not my cup of tea, this novel fell short too.
It is my understanding that this author is known for writing lesbian relationships in most of her books and does it well.

The Good Bits:

“I felt that thread that had come between us, tugging, tugging at my heart—so hard, it hurt me.”

The romance part is written well, and sometimes it’s wondrously-rendered, gloriously languid! Using imagery that springs to mind so vividly one would think it a memory, Sarah Waters has fashioned a glorious work of fiction.  Everyone has a secret and nothing is what it seems: not Sue, not her unscrupulous partner, not even the apparently pathetic Maud who is the mark. Sarah Waters whip-lashes the reader in brutal plot turn-arounds not just once but twice, and accomplishes the impossible in making us empathize deeply with characters we at first despised. The atmosphere is all-enveloping, the plot an intricate marvel, and the tender romance that grows between two brutalized women is a heart-breaker.

Adapted into a play

Other Reviews:

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