Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
You are waiting for me to start my story. Perhaps I was waiting, then. But my story had already started–I was only like you, and didn’t know it.
Sometimes, a book will grab you and drag you along for the ride. Sometimes it has to do with the plot, sometimes the characters, but more often it’s a combination of everything; the author in question is so skilled, so talented, so able to manipulate the emotions of the reader that the reader is completely in the author’s power.
The last time I felt like this about a book was Oryx and Crake. The time before that, it was Life of Pi. But Fingersmith is almost the perfect book, able to grab me and make me a part of the story, but with shades of the Victorian novels I love so much that Oryx and Crake and Life of Pi lack. The beginning is reminiscent of Oliver Twist; the ending, coincidental in nature, also calls to mind the early Dickens. However, the style is purely modern, allowing contemporary readers to engage with the story in a way that would be much harder with a truly Victorian novel.
It’s no wonder Fingersmith was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2002. The first part starts ordinarily enough — Susan Trinder, a young thief (or fingersmith) from the poor side of London, is enlisted by one of her friends to con a young heiress out of her fortune by enticing her to marry a gentleman who would then put her in a madhouse and steal her inheritance. Once Susan grows to know the heiress, however, she becomes conflicted about her role in the con, as could be expected.
The climax of the con draws close, but Susan is no longer sure she wants to go through with it. However, she does allow the heiress to marry the gentleman, and the three of them head to an inn in the country to await the time when they will commit the woman to the madhouse and escape with the money.
At about this point in the book, I began to wonder what could possibly come next. I was only a third of the way through, and I already seemed to have a beginning, middle, and most of an ending. Not five pages after I wondered if Sarah Waters had possibly gone mad herself and filled the rest of the book completely with Susan’s guilt-ridden inner monologue, I hit the crucial twist in the plot.
It was as though someone had smacked me in the face — the blood rushed from my head, my ears began to ring, and I gasped aloud before practically devouring the next few pages in an attempt to understand what was going on. After this point, I was as putty in Water’s capable hands, completely enveloped in the story and open to emotional manipulation.
Of course, Waters then set me up for yet another plot twist, a subversion of expectations that might have been more obvious to a savvier reader. However, as I’ve said, I was too emotionally involved to see the trajectory at that point, though I was still keen enough to notice how perfect the structure of the plot was and how beautifully symmetrical the outcome.
Even the distance I felt in Waters’ other works had disappeared. With Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, lesbian relationships were at the core of the plot, which posed a problem for the straight reader. With Fingersmith, it’s clear that there is a lesbian relationship, but the story is more than that. It’s hard to think of another author who has surpassed his or her previous work to the extent Waters has, but it’s almost like the difference between David Copperfield and Great Expectations. For David, marrying Agnes is the culmination of his entire life, the center point around which all the other events in his life revolve. Pip believes his life revolves around Estella, but the story is really about social mobility, finding one’s place in the world, and the subversion of expectations rather than about love and marriage. That distinction is the difference between Fingersmith and Water’s previous novels.
In short, I am in love with this book. It’s going right next to The Crimson Petal and the White and The Oracle Glass as one of my favorite works of historical fiction. At some point, I have to reread it, as I know my visceral first reaction probably made me miss some crucial points of the plot, and no doubt the absolute perfection of Waters’ style will be even more apparent on a second reading. This is most certainly a Book Worth Buying, and worth buying as soon as humanly possible.