This was a book club read, and coincidentally I was about four chapters in when I attended a talk on the Gothic genre with Sarah Waters and Sarah Perry as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival earlier this month. I gave more details of that on Monday, but I was very glad to have read a little of this book when I went to the talk, as I understood her points better, and I took a lot more out of this book afterwards, recognising some of the things that had struck me during Sarah Waters’ book reading (of The Paying Guests) and the subsequent discussion.
Fingersmith is essentially the tale of what happens when a girl, Susan, is required to act as a lady’s maid to Maud Lilly, as part of a plot to steal her fortune. There are presentiments of things to go wrong in the execution of this dastardly deed in Susan’s narrative comments of ‘what was to happen later’, but the twist took me completely by surprise! The second part is told from Miss Lilly’s point of view, which explains much, but gives nothing away for the final section. It’s a masterful piece of half-delivered truth being entirely misdirection.
What struck me from the outset was the detailed description of minutiae in the dwelling (I”m not sure I should call it a house) where Susan lives. I realise that, in order to comply with the style of pace and story, I have largely edited out description from my books. What lies on the dressing table, the washing flung over the clothes horse to dry in front of the fire, all tell their own story about the inhabitants, their situation, their mundane or exotic lives. Too much description can kill a story. The right amount, without cliche, can build form, and suggest things about the environment that build tension, especially where characters should remain silent. The mouldering windowframe with fingernail-sized crescent shapes where people have tried to open it in the past; the damp spots around the corners of the ceiling… After the workshop, I was fully aware of the building of dread – dread rather than terror or horror is the emotion of the gothic novel – and the compulsion to read on to see what happens.
This was a slow read – at least for the first part, before the twist. There was a lot to savour. After that it fairly raced along, concern for both women and their fates pulling me back as soon as I was able. A fingersmith is a thief in Victorian parlance, but the role of gloves in the tale is another issue, one which made me wonder, and wonder….
It’s a masterful piece, not for under 18s, but I’m sure most of my blogging friends would find, as I did, the thrills and creepiness to make them want to read Ms Waters’ work, unless they are offended by LGBT themes.
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (Goodreads link)