Summary (from Goodreads): An upper-class woman, recovering from a suicide attempt, visits the women's ward of Millbank prison as part of her rehabilitation. There she meets Selina, an enigmatic spiritualist - and becomes 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.
Review: This is going to be a really difficult book to review because it is so, so important that I don’t give anything of the story away, and discussing the plot will probably have to be kept pretty minimal. I’ll do my best.
I’m probably expected to have “grown up” by now, but there are some people who I admire so much I wish I could just be them in some distant point in the future when I’m actually supposed to be out in the real world. Sarah Waters is one such person. She is absolutely flawless at everything she does. She pulls you into a story and you get so caught up in it and carried along and you buy into everything so completely- even though there’s this tiny voice in the back of your head that wants to warn you that things probably aren’t going to go the way that you’d hope. You don’t know for certain until the very moment turns the whole thing round to reveal this whole other side to things that you’d never even contemplated.
The writing alternates between Margaret and Selina’s journal entries, running parallel in a way that initially confused me a little at first; Selina opens the story in 1873, then the next chapter from Margaret’s point of view begins two years later. Selina’s journal entries then jump back to 1872 and the events leading up to the opening chapter, while Margaret’s carry on over 1874. After a couple of chapters and you start getting into the story, it reads a lot more fluidly and it isn’t hard to follow.
The two perspectives both contrast very strongly in writing style. Margaret writes with a great amount of attention to detail, her entries often going on for several pages- she writes very carefully, if that makes sense, often describing things very elaborately but also giving the reader the sense that she’s still holding things back from us, as though we’ll never get a full sense of what she feels internally. In a way it makes her a rather difficult character to engage with, and she often feels more like the narrator of the story than one of the central characters.
Selina is very different. Her entries are much shorter, usually only a page or so, and more irregular and unreliable. Going back to discussing how convincingly the dialogue was written and so on, there are little things here and there that remind you of the fact that she hasn’t had the same upbringing as Margaret scattered throughout the writing, perhaps her way of phrasing things. Her perspective felt more direct, like she was writing more for herself than for the sake of the reader.
The theme of sexuality isn’t as prominent as it is in the other two of Waters’ books that I’ve read- Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith- but in a way having it just simmer under the surface for so much of the time was very effective, and it made the atmosphere of repression that ran throughout the book even stronger. It’s a very atmospheric book, and rich with all sorts of descriptions of Victorian London; the dialogue, especially, reads very convincingly. All the settings are dark, dull, bleak – it feels claustrophobic in a way, even, and moving between such locations as Millbank Prison, Margaret’s oppressive home, and the dark streets of London. It contributes to a sense of foreboding that you get right from the first sentence and doesn’t let you go until the last.
I feel like if I go on for too much longer I'll end up starting to give the most important things away, so that's all for now. Even reading the blurb of a Sarah Waters novel feels like it's taking something away from reading the story for yourself; so that's really the only thing to do. I'd better go now, so I'll leave you to it.
In Three Words: dark, haunting, tense.
Recommended for: fans of historical and gothic fiction.