Winner of the CWA Ellis Peters Dagger for Historical Crime Fiction
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize & the Orange Prize
Synopsis: Orphaned shortly after birth, Susan Trinder grows up amongst thieves and swindlers in 19th century London. During a stormy night the conman Gentleman makes Sue an offer she cannot refuse. She is to pretend to be a maid and befriend Lady Lilly Maud, heiress to a great fortune. Gentleman takes the place of Miss Maud’s teacher and will ask her hand in marriage so the money will be his.
What a dragon thinks: I read this book weeks ago but was never quite sure how to review it or what to write. Still, I wanted to let you know what I thought of the book. That’s why I decided to simply wing it.
The first thing I noticed was the language and how perfectly it fit the time the story is set in. Now, I am no linguist but to me it seemed as though Sarah Waters put a lot of work and research into it. Anyone who knows me could tell you that I am a huge language freak and that I inhale old-fashioned words and texts. Tolkien for example has amazing stories but O my, the language alone could keep me raving for hours! Anyway, it was the perfect use of language that pulled me into the book, not the story. Admittedly, I have an unhealthy obsessions with descriptions (love all the detailed paragraphs about trees in Tolkien’s books) and I really got into the inner monologues of Sue, our main character. I was still fussing over obsolete words before I finally took in who was doing what and for what reason.
Sarah Waters did impressively well creating the dark, mysterious atmosphere for the story and also the characters. You can almost feel the mist creeping up on your house and hear the bark of a stray dog. It is cold and wet and clammy and I was expecting, hoping maybe, that it might get a tad brighter. The characters are no cocksure, sharp tricksters with charming smiles. Their behaviour is much closer to what a low-lying conman trying to evade justice would actually do. Ground rules, a respectable façade for the public and no risks taken. They all had sufficient depth for a well-rounded character but I couldn’t get warm with any of them. Gentleman, for starters, was fishy and talking about destroying a girl’s life for her money – how can I like someone like that? He is a perverted creep, too and I despise him. I felt uncomfortable whenever he was on the page.
The book consists of three parts. The first part is from Sue’s point of view. She grows up amongst petty thieves and con-men; her lullaby is the knock on the back door deep at night. She is used around shady characters and knows quite some trick herself when it comes to pick-pocketing or forging. When Gentleman proposes a long con she accepts albeit reluctantly. She needs the money. Gentleman has already stolen the trust of Miss Lilly Maud and infiltrated the mansion as her private tutor. However, as a man he cannot always stay at her side and this is where Sue comes in: she is to earn Lilly’s trust as her loyal maid and persuade her to marry Gentleman. For only after Lilly gives her hand in marriage, she can rightfully claim her fortune. Gentleman plans to ‘deflower’ Lilly so no other man would want her and then commit her to an asylum, keeping her riches.
‘All right. I’ll do it. But for three thousand pounds, not two. And if the lady don’t care for me and sends me home, I shall want a hundred anyway, for the trouble of trying.’
At this point I was hoping for some more ‘colour’. Sue leaves grey London with the monotonously cloudy sky and her less than bright future behind and travels to the countryside. Lilly Maud’s mansion, located in the middle of nowhere, is staffed with a skeleton crew serving Maud and her uncle. The atmosphere becomes even colder and darker if that is possible. Mr. Lilly spends most of his time studying in his library and has Maud helping him copy manuscripts. The mansion is silent and has a dying touch to it. Mould, dust and sometimes I had the feeling even the mist slipping through the cracks in the window frames. Everything is clammy and I was glad I was curled up under my blanket in a cosy warm bed.
Now comes the part where I tell you why I couldn’t fully enjoy the book. It was too foggy, too cold and too mysterious. I hated Gentleman and his darn plot already when he explained it to Sue in the very first chapter but I wanted to read on. The thrill of the language kept me buoying. The overly clammy atmosphere – I truly have to applaud Sarah Waters for that! Absolutely amazing what she can create with words – had me on the edge of my seat. I was tense and dreaded to read on while at the same time I wanted to know what happened. So I did what I have never ever done before. I looked up a detailed summary of the book on the Internet because I was so scared for Maud. I also wanted to avoid stumbling into a situation I would not be comfortable with. This way I robbed myself of two or three amazing plot twists but I feel like I made the right decision.
Part two is told from Lilly Maud’s perspective and I admit, I only skimmed it from there on. It simply was too grim, too dark and I couldn’t take it. Maud describes her childhood, her lonely teen years, working for her uncle and her friendship with Sue. I am not going into detail lest I give away vital parts of the plot but I was astonished to see how much her story differs from what Sue told the reader. It was like reading two different stories where the main characters happened to have the same names. I truly enjoyed the concept but again, the story itself was too dark and grim for my taste. The plot twists in this part blew my mind, despite me intentionally spoiler-ing myself beforehand.
Part three is told from Sue’s point of view again and we see the story come full circle. As the conclusion nears, the reader is expecting a surprising turn of events. There are still so many unanswered questions but Sarah Water manages to tie up all loose ends in a fulminant climax. More truths and sub-plots emerge and I have to congratulate her for devising such a multi-layered story with realistic characters and good language. It was too grim and clammy for my taste but I did like the idea. I think, another problem for me personally was that the book is targeted towards adults. The atmosphere is totally different and much more sombre, the topics are sharper and the wording less filtered. I hope I am making myself clear. What I want to say is, that I very much like the slightly dimmed and protective atmosphere YA literature emanates. ‘Fingersmith’ was too much for me, too adult in its setting and story. Perhaps when I am a bit older I might try again and enjoy it more.
Favourite characters: Maud, Sue
Conclusion: I recognise the potential of the idea and story but I couldn’t fully enjoy it. The grim and clammy atmosphere made me tense and paranoid. I say it again, I love the concept but the execution was too much for my poor heart. Usually I refrain from making comments on characters in the conclusion but Gentleman is a creep. Sarah Waters uses her characters like chess pieces and astounds the reader with bold moves and unforeseen turns. Single pieces fit together seamlessly and I truly admire her for use of plot devises. If anything kept me fully reading the first part and skimming the second and third part it was the language. That beautiful old-fashioned language that fit the period perfectly.
Details about the book:
- Author: Sarah Waters
- Publishing House: Virago
- Pages: 548
- Date of publication: May 3rd 2012
- Binding: Paperback
- ISBN: 978-1-86049-883-1