Review: ‘Affinity’ by Sarah Waters

Image result for rossetti beata beatrix

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Beata Beatrix’ (‘Blessed Beatrice’) Oil on Canvas, c. 1863-1870


An upper-class woman recovering from a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior has begun visiting the women’s ward of Millbank prison, Victorian London’s grimmest jail, as part of her rehabilitative charity work. Amongst Millbank’s murderers and common thieves, Margaret finds herself increasingly fascinated by on apparently innocent inmate, the enigmatic spiritualist Selina Dawes. Selina was imprisoned after a séance she was conducting went horribly awry, leaving an elderly matron dead and a young woman deeply disturbed. Although initially skeptical of Selina’s gifts, Margaret is soon drawn into a twilight world of ghosts and shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions, until she is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina’s freedom, and her own.


Considering the lively, funny, bawdy, often provoking style of Waters’s earlier work- for example ‘Tipping the Velvet’ and ‘Fingersmith’, this seemed a dull, colourless, lifeless sort of novel, and its heroine, Margaret Prior, seemed just as wavering, just as nebulous, introspective and dare I say it, dreary. When she’s not watching the prisoners at Millbank- and make no mistake, she’s always watching them- she’s writing in her journal, giving dark hints at a troubled past, an infatuation/thwarted love with her friend, Helen, and grieving/pining for her father. I felt no sense of connection to Margaret- unlike brave, boisterous, achingly vulnerable Nan King or clever, scheming, resilient Sue Trinder- she seemed too miserable, and when there was finally a ‘twist’ point, (no spoilers!) it felt lacklustre- not at all like the elegant twists, turns and subversions of ‘Fingersmith.’ Neither did I find Selina Dawes relatable- she to me was a one-dimensional Sphinx, and her diary entries were hard to decode. It also lacked the eerie atmosphere of seances and the Victorian cult of mourning. I hoped this would be like Joanne Harris’s marvellous ‘Sleep, Pale Sister’, but instead this was so slow-paced and plodding I had difficulty persevering with it. The first chapter alone was so overly-descriptive it never seemed to end.

Having said that, I can appreciate what Waters’s was trying to do, and there is no doubt she is a highly capable and talented writer- one of my favourites. The themes of the novel seemed to be voyeurism, barely-there hints at sexuality, the humiliation of the prisoners and the hatred of women, which are interesting issues, but it lacks the rich, Gothic atmosphere and imagery I was hoping for. This to me was a bleak and sparse novel, radically different in tone to Waters’s earlier work, and to be honest I was left disappointed. The one thing I did like was when Margaret first met Selina in prison, Selina had her face upturned to the sun and was holding a violet in her upturned hands. This was a striking image, and reminded me of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, ‘Beata Beatrix’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (reproduced above.) It was a very visual novel, so perhaps it would work better on screen- in fact, it was adapted for television in 2008, (see the trailer above- please ignore the subtitles!) but as I’ve never seen it I don’t feel I can comment on it. Other than that, ‘Affinity’ fell flat for me- you could say I had no affinity with it.

Overall rating: 2 out of 10

Read if you enjoyed: ‘Tom-All-Alone’s’by Lynn Shepherd

This Book in Four Words: Descriptive. Complicated. Haunting. Bleak.


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