Margaret Prior has decided to become a ‘lady visitor’ to the female inmates in Milbank Prison. She is supposed to be an example of female virtue for the prisoners to aspire to. But inside she meets Selina Dawes, a disgraced spiritualist who weaves an enigmatic spell around her. Is Dawes a fraud, or a prodigy? Does magic really exist? Or is it only a trick to take advantage of others?
Length: 352 pages/14 hours 58 minutes
Publisher: Virago/Hachette Audio UK
Source: Secondhand bookshop/Audible
Content warnings: suicide, depression
I had this book on my TBR shelf for a few months before finding out it was on one of my reading lists for university. This was a blessing and also a curse. I wanted to read it, but having to read it for a set time frame, and having to read it critically, didn’t help my enjoyment of it.
Affinity is set in the Victorian era, and there is a timeless quality to the writing. Waters writes as if she is channelling the era she is writing in, but leaves behind the difficult language and phrasing that characterises most 19th century novels. The narrative is a third person perspective, but just close enough that you get the character’s thoughts and feelings, without it feeling as restrictive as a first person narrative often does.
The plot does move quite slowly. It also has a dual perspective, and a dual timeline. In the present day we follow Margaret’s visits to the prison, and her developing relationship with Selina Dawes. While written in a kind of diary format, we follow the events that led to Selina’s imprisonment, from her perspective.
This duality only added to the mystery of the book and also increased the tension. I enjoyed the way Waters drip-fed the clues as to what happened to Selina and trying to work out what the truth was.
Affinity does have an lgbt+ theme running throughout. Margaret Prior is not your usual Victorian female character. Her sexuality is never made explicit and is never given a name, but it is made obvious through her interactions with other characters that she has had relationships with other women. This theme also plays out with other characters in the novel.
I like how understated this aspect of Affinity is. Margaret is who she is, as difficult as that may be in the time period she is living in. The story isn’t about her sexuality, so that’s only one aspect of the plot. I think this is an elegant way of handling the topic, and I’d like to read more books like this.
I am looking forward to reading more Sarah Waters novels.