I recently finished reading Fingersmith by Sarah Waters on the recommendation of a friend. I remember being told it was a great book written in the first person from a female perspective. The friend did lend me half-a-dozen books that day, so I may be mistaken . I started reading expecting a strong female character in a fantasy setting of some description.
Fingersmith is, indeed, told in the first person from a female perspective – but it’s not a fantasy book. It’s set in the UK in the mid 19th century and has no supernatural elements whatsoever. I point this out because I want it to be clear that my expectations were off as that may have coloured my take on the book. It also had the misfortune of following on from my reading (for the first time) most of of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. For those of you that aren’t familiar with Sandman, turn off whatever device you’re reading this on, proceed directly to your nearest book or comic store, buy it, and read it. I put down one of the volumes (Brief Lives) and declared myself done with reading, writing, and all forms of story telling. Nothing would ever be able to live up to the brilliance I had just read. I say this because, well, it was just plain unfair to Fingersmith to have to follow that. I want it to be clear that it had the odds stacked against it from the beginning.
The prose in Fingersmith drops you into 19th century London from the very first sentence. It took me a chapter or two to get used to it, but once I had it was fantastic. I had to down pens and stop writing for the week I was reading it because Waters’ voice was simply too infectious.
Her prose was so good it set high expectations for the story. Expectations that the clichéd, misanthropic, and ultimately unsatisfying story never had a chance of meeting. Maybe my expectations were too high. Between the grace of her prose and my having just read one of Gaiman’s greatest works, I can’t help but worry that I’m short changing Waters.
The book is divided into three parts. The first and last told from Sue Trinder’s perspective and the middle from another’s view. I was engrossed for most of the first part of the novel. I was excited about the story and this naive young girl who was being asked to trick another young girl, throw her in an asylum, and steal her sizable inheritance. It was obvious from early on that the mastermind of this scheme was likely to betray Sue. The story was exciting, though the formula was well known. And this is where my expectations got away from me. Maybe because I’d been reading Gaiman and maybe because of Waters’ masterful prose and maybe because it was recommended by a good friend I discarded the obvious, cliché twist as being beneath this book. It was going to do something else and the story was going to become one of redemption and not revenge. Or it was going to do something unexpected. Or something. Anything but the trope.
I was wrong. The so-cliché-Hollywood-would-think-twice twist is the one that happened. It was executed marvellously. It was gut wrenching, but it left a terrible taste in my mouth. The book had betrayed me. It was meant to tell me a better story and it wasn’t.
After this point, it gets hard to keep commenting without some spoilers. I can’t recommend to anyone that they read Fingersmith. But if you do want to do so, you may want to stop reading this review now.
I read the rest of the book, but I had to force myself to do so. Waters made the understandable, but mistaken, decision to retell much of the story from the perspective of the target of the scheme – Maud. This gave me a much needed understanding of how it had all come to pass. It also turned aside a tiny bit of the hatred I now held for Maud. But mostly it was boring. I knew nearly every plot point and twist that was coming. Largely because we’d just read this damned story but from Sue’s perspective and partly because I now knew it for the clichéd plot that it was.
The worst thing about the book wasn’t the story though. Yes, it was trope and frankly, I know a number of complete amateurs who have told more riveting tales (albeit without the brilliant prose). The worst thing was the characters and general misanthropy.
There are two characters in the entire book who are not evil. The next least evil is probably Sue. Who was quite willing and, initially, quite eager to help the villain of the story seduce and then elope with Maud, lock her in a madhouse, and then steal her wealth. There are then another half-dozen characters who are more evil than that, including Maud herself. The two not-evil characters are both incredibly weak-willed and little more than cardboard cut outs. One plays a role in much of the climax. I can’t describe him beyond “that snivelling little boy”. The other is just “that maid Maud abused and then set up to be raped”. I could maybe deal with this evil if it was offset by some good. But there is none. Even love is portrayed as selfish and without empathy.
The horrors visited upon all of the characters are utterly terrifying. It seems that Waters doesn’t think it’s enough to have characters that have come from difficult backgrounds. No, they must come from truly terrible backgrounds. It’s not enough that Maud grew up in a madhouse. She also has to be beaten by every character she meets when first arriving at Briar house, before settling into her life working for her uncle. Her work involves transcribing erotica and reading it aloud to him and his male guests. It felt very much like the only tool Waters’ knows how to use to get her audience to like a character is to visit hardship and turmoil on them.
This wasn’t the worst thing about the main characters though. The worst is their complete lack of agency. With the exception of Sue much later in the book, there was not a single thing either did that demonstrated any actual agency of their own. They just went along with whatever plan someone else put in front of them. I felt that I was meant to view them as strong for surviving the horrid situations they were put in. I didn’t. It’s hard to respect a character that has no agency. I have never read a book where the main characters were as passive and weak as Sue and Maud.
The book left me feeling empty and miserable. It left me feeling that humanity would be best off destroying itself before we commit any more wickedness. If that was Waters’ aim, then well done to her. She succeeded masterfully. If her aim was to tell a gripping story, she failed miserably.
I cannot recommend this book to anyone. Frankly, I wish I’d put it down at the end of part 1 and never picked it back up.
Edit #1: Added note 1. Fixed some minor grammar errors. Clarified two minor points.
Note 1: Indeed, from chatting with the friend they thought they had warned me that I probably wouldn’t like this book. It’s entirely probable that they did. Memories are a funny thing.