Book Review: Affinity – Sarah Waters

6900418Release Date: January 2002
Publisher: Virago
Pages: 352.
Find It On: Goodreads. Amazon. 


A sad Gothic novel filled with a continuing feeling of dread.

Margaret Prior is recovering from a suicide attempt. After the death of her father she arranges to attend a local prison a few days a week to visit the prisoners – to talk and comfort them. On her rounds she meets Selina Dawes, and the two strike up a friendship. Selina is a medium, imprisoned for a seance gone wrong. Unsure whether to believe Selina’s gifts are real, Margaret is drawn to the prison more and more, desperate to understand who and what Selina really is.

This book is a hard one for me to describe. This is the first time I have ever read anything by Sarah Waters, and having read the synopsis for the book I was quite excited to read it. I love Gothic novels and this one, with the hint of supernatural just sounded fantastic. Alas I came away feeling somewhat disappointed.

The novel is certainly a dreary one, and I often felt a little boring, crawling through pages of depressing monologue. I often found I had to put it down and read something a bit more entertaining and then return to it. On that notion I was planning to give this book only two stars, it was a little long winded for me.

But then when I finally finished the book (for it took me a while) I had the strange feeling that I’d just finishing something incredible. It deals a lot with social conventions of the time on subjects such as suicide and lesbianism, both punishable extremely severely, and the idea that because Margaret is a lady, her suicide attempt is swept under the rug. It has much to say about the double standards between different classes in the Victorian period. It also deals a lot with the prison system and how prisoners were treated in that time, there are some intense, almost frightening chapters in which prisoners are taken to solitary confinement, and the way they are horrifically treated.

The thing that stood out most for me was the mystery element. That I really enjoyed. The whole plot keeps you guessing, can Selina really contact spirits, or is a conjurer of cheap tricks? The whole story is a very sad and dismal love story. I also rather liked the switching of point of view for each chapter. Half the chapters follow Margaret as she goes to the prison, deals with her sisters marriage and her invasive mother, and the other half tell the story of Selina before she was imprisoned. I preferred Selina’s chapters myself as I found them more interesting, leaving little clues to the possibility of her being a medium or not.

Affinity is a very subtle and moving novel. It is filled with dense, bleak imagery that really does conjure up a very intense atmosphere of despair. This book may not be for everyone, but if you’re looking for something outside of the box, this one might be just what you’re looking for.

Looking for something similar? Try: The Observations or As Meat Loves Salt. 

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