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From Barnes & NobleWaters Runs Deep
Sarah Waters's first novel, Tipping the Velvet, had a brilliantly literary tone and a fresh new voice that garnered her a diverse audience, great critical acclaim, and laudatory reviews. Waters's look at the intimate relationships between several women in late 19th-century London tapped into the feminine mystique in a uniquely compelling way, touching on the effects of the sociopolitical upheaval of that time and the women's inherent sensuality. Now, in another story about women pulling together and coming together, this promising new writer produces yet another tour de force with Affinity, a haunting tale of ghosts, spiritualism, betrayal, and survival. Though the time period is essentially the same, this time Waters chooses a seedier, darker setting: the women's ward at London's Millbank prison.
Twenty-something Margaret Prior comes from one of London's finer families, but that doesn't protect her from suffering a very common malady: a broken heart. She attempts suicide by overdosing on laudanum and as part of her therapy following this attempt, she volunteers to visit inmates on the women's ward at nearby Millbank prison. Here she finds herself mingling with a wide array of women whose social backgrounds range from street beggars to London's upper crust. Their stories are as equally diverse and intriguing as they are suspect, from the petty thieves who stole food to assuage their hunger to cold-blooded murderers who killed for little more than revenge.
Although the plights of these sad women help take Margaret's mind off her broken heart, she can't completely put her lover out of her mind. Complicating that problem are two things. The first is that Margaret can talk to no one about her affair and is forced to keep her battered emotions bottled up inside to avoid a heinous scandal. The second is the stress of proximity, for her lover is another woman, one who is about to marry Margaret's brother. Desperate to get past her pain, Margaret throws herself into the prison environment and soon becomes curiously drawn to one young woman who, like most of the others, declares her innocence. But this woman, Selina Dawes, is intriguingly different.
For one thing, Selina claims to be a spiritualist and blames the crime for which she is being punished -- fraud and battery -- on a ghost. At first Margaret thinks this is just another story -- albeit a more inventive one than most -- designed to cover up true guilt. But before long, Margaret has reason to rethink things. First she delves into Selina's background and discovers several things that lend credence to Selina's claims. Then mysterious things start to happen that seem to support the existence of a spiritual world. Selina demonstrates her intimate knowledge of happenings in Margaret's life -- things she has no way of knowing. Plus, certain items appear -- a bloody collar and a braided hank of hair -- and disappear -- Margaret's favorite, treasured locket. Convinced that Selina is indeed innocent, and growing more captivated by this enigmatic woman with each passing day, Margaret thinks up a plan for escape from Millbank, one that will allow her and Selina to be together. But her plans go horribly awry and set both women on a devastating course of hope and betrayal that will leave one of them forever changed.
Waters tells her story in a circular fashion that switches back and forth in both time and points of view. Through the two women's respective journals, readers experience both Margaret's day-to-day relationship with Selina and the past events in Selina's life that led up to her conviction and imprisonment. In this manner, Waters plumbs the vast array of emotions inherent in the women themselves and in their relationship with one another, exposing heightened passions, frightening vulnerabilities, and a truly mesmerizing world of the supernatural.
Waters's expansive knowledge of the period brings turn-of-the-century London brilliantly alive. Her flair for colorful, vivid imagery makes the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the dank prison seem frighteningly real, the horridly grim conditions adding layers of subtle character to its many denizens. Waters is clearly a writer of remarkable talent and, from its riveting opening scene to its shocking ending, Affinity is the perfect showcase for that talent.