Monday, September 7, 2009

Review: "Fingersmith"


Every now and then, you fall in love. With a coffee house, or a kitten, or maybe a moment under a specific tree on one particular day.

Sometimes you fall in love with a novel. In this case, a novel about falling in love.

Is this review sufficiently saccharine yet? Wait--it gets better! Really!

Fingersmith is a novel by Sarah Waters. It is also Victorian slang for "pick pocket." In the context of the novel, it also functions as a double ententre. You see, like the writer's two previous novels, its plot concerns a lesbian love story. But not one of those plithy tales of nice girls who fall for each other then stand up to a social order that disapproves. Such can be the stuff of good story-telling, to be sure. Look at Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for example or But I'm A Cheerleader. But Waters challenges us rather more than that. The term "politically correct" having become too degraded to mean much of anything anymore, instead let us call this novel one that confounds all expectations--and makes perfect sense. No small feat.

The first stirrings of the plot you can read on any cover of either the novel itself or the DVD of the miniseries adapted from it. Sue Trinder, raised in a squalid but raucus part of London by Mrs. Sucksby, is hired by a charming rogue known as Gentleman to help fleece an heiress. Said heiress is Maud Lilly, a girl Sue's own age--kept under the thumb of a tyrannical uncle Christopher Lilly in his estate of Briar (love the name of that manor--feels perfectly authentic yet seethes with meaning). It is a cruel plan, a ruthless one, and it hinges upon Sue earning Maud's trust.

As perhaps one might suspect, things do not go according to plan. Sue grows close to Maud, and finds herself in a terrible conundrum. In time, they grow more than close. Herein lies the stuff of tragedy.

Waters, one should mention, has a degree in Victorian literature and it shows. She wields a startling plot (or plots) with a skill one might expect of an expert on Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and like. Or not. Because the creation of story points and satisfying revelations has never been a matter of studying Anne Radcliffe or Sheridan LeFanu. That requires ability, rather than mere knowledge. For that matter, the book is draped with telling details with layer after layer of meaning. Mr. Lilly, for example--he of the purple tongue from ceaseless wetting of his quill pen, and the brass finger on the library floor beyond which servants are forbidden. Or the extra income Mrs. Sucksby earns because one of her windows shows the nearby gallows (quite a boon execution time, with folks willing to pay for the "show").

Lest you have not yet read or seen this work, I offer no spoilers. Precise twists and turns in the plot remain unwritten for this review. What I will mention is that a co-worker, to whom I'd lent the novel, came in one day with less than ten pages left and uttered the words "I have no idea what is going to happen next!"

Maybe my co-worker is not a good judge of such things. You have no way of knowing. But assume for the sake of argument (as is indeed the case) that she is. Consider then what a testimonial she gave in that moment! Let my own testimony confirm it! One of the grave problems with reading or viewing many works of fiction--whatever the media--is that an audience member becomes jaded. One watches a film or reads a book and what happens within too often ends up predictable. This is my major complaint, for example, with the last book of the Twilight Saga--after chapter one, the bones of plot for all the other chapters were naked to my mind's eye. Not so this book!

Alas, my fear is that now readers might halfway expect UFOs to abduct one of the characters, then clone her to become the president of a distant planet of living lawn furniture.

No fear. Surprising, yes. Silly, no.

What I can say without hesitation is that Fingersmith captures the feel of another era, a time before modern forensics or women's rights, before the cataloging of all things had reached quite such a pervasive level, where "class" meant something much than it does to us today (at least, I hope so). Social services--what would those be? London--a place only imagined and barely that without television or films or even photographs. More tellingly--Identity. A more malleable thing in some ways without social security numbers or fingerprints, much less DNA profiles or digital records. Waters' words take us to another place, one not so very far from us in time--hence familiar yet alien. Quaint, and also disturbing. Yet comfortable in some odd way.

More than this, she weaves a constellation of characters in orbit around one another that compel interest and caring. Sue's practicality coupled with a growing shame at her own actions. Maud's ignorance, slowly but surely demolished in the wake of meeting Sue. The charm and cruel honesty of Gentleman. Mr. Lilly--tyrant and cripple (in soul far more than body). And the strange, difficult journey of Mrs. Sucksby as plots unravel and secrets start doing a dance. Yet at its heart--a love story. Two complex and complete human beings who--and why this should be so utterly believable and understandable is the art of the thing--find in each other some part of themselves they've been missing. Sue and Maud are the heart of this tale, with all its mystery and betrayals. They are the ones we care about most, and from whose eyes we learn all kinds of uncomfortable truths. Each becomes a treasure to the other, but under more bizarre and challenging circumstances one might fear to imagine.

In passing I should mention the BBC made a fine adaptation of the novel, starring Sally Hawkins and Elaine Cassidy in the leads. Behold the trailer:

1 comment:

Catherine Karp said...

I loved Waters' Affinity and still need to read this one. I should place it higher up in my always-growing reading pile. Thanks for reminding me about it.