Review: Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Julie Myerson is hooked by Sarah Waters, a modern Wilkie Collins whose Fingersmith reveals a vital Victorian world of petty thieves, asylums and surprising passions

Sarah Waters
416pp, Virago, £12.99

The worst job I ever had was in Debenhams hosiery department, Nottingham, 1977. The one thing that kept me going through that dark, soul-numbing winter was Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White. I gobbled it on the bus, under the counter and in too-hasty snatches in the fluorescent staff canteen. As Gothic intrigue, madness and terror loomed, Charnos and Elbeo receded. It saved me, as extraordinary books can and do.

Now Debenhams is a dim and dreary memory, but this past week Sarah Waters has thrilled me in identical ways to Collins with this, her third novel. Addicted to its atmosphere and hung up on its plot, I've gulped it exhaustedly until 3am, only to sleep and dream that I was still caught among its urgent, unnerving characters.

In the 1860s, the Borough - the shanty town at the wrong end of Southwark Bridge - is a place of petty thieves and criminals, of poverty, "mean little dodges" and scams. Waters's Victorian London is a city where thieves say "fuck" and "cunt", where babies are dosed with gin until they conk out, where "knifish" boys sit by the fire spitting out peanut shells. Most brutal, daring and refreshing of all, it's a place where pornography, emotional abuse and rape are the natural bedfellows of greed and lovelessness.

The people, too, come throbbing off the page - none of your watery heroines here. Sue, 17, knows only that her mother was hanged for murder. She's been brought up by Mrs Sucksby and Mr Ibbs - the latter fences stolen property and the former does much the same with unwanted babies. It's a rough, crooked yet comradely household, which is occasionally visited by one Richard Rivers, a debonair criminal, forger and seducer. And Gentleman - as he's known - has a plan.

An heiress, Maud Lilly, lives with her grim, scholarly uncle in a huge, dark mansion "out Maidenhead-way". Like that woman in white, Maud stands to inherit a fortune if and when she marries. Posing as a drawing master, Gentleman has already gained her trust and is confident that his attentions are welcomed. He now plans to lure her away from uncle, marry, "jiggle" and ruin her, before dumping her in an asylum and making her fortune his own. But in order to persuade this isolated young woman to "do a flit", he needs likeable, guileless Sue to become her lady's maid, so gaining her trust and helping her (and him). If they succeed, Sue will get a share of the fortune. Sue - good-hearted but crooked, with an eye on the main chance - doesn't think twice.

Arriving in the country at this sprawling Gothic mansion, she gets to know lonely Maud and, gradually, to like her; an uneasy development in the light of what must happen. But Gentleman arrives and continues his sly courtship, and all seems to be going to plan. Until something Sue discovers, something she could never have predicted, flips her world over and turns it upside down.

It was then that the book and I disappeared to a café for several hours while the world thought I was working - Debenhams all over again. It's also the point, only a third of the way through this dense 400-pager, after which I refuse to disclose another morsel of plot. Even by admitting my excitement, I feel I've already said too much.

It's a thriller, yes, but it's also a love story - a sexy, passionate and startling one. I hesitate to call it lesbian, because that seems to marginalise it far more than it deserves. Suffice to say, it is erotic and unnerving in all the right ways. And modern - though Waters makes full and sensuous use of gloves, stockings, rustling skirts and heaving breasts, her ear for the crunch of language, her knowingness and her unceasing impulse for physical honesty turn every potential cliché into something up-close and fresh.

I was occasionally aware of Waters's unstoppable appetite for detail, her determination to draw out every moment. Could it, should it, perhaps have been edited a little? But if the writer and critic in me asked these questions, the reader never did, not for a single moment. In fact, the last 50 pages are so sensationally tense that you read them naughtily, one eye on the sentence in hand, the other attempting vainly to cheat and flick ahead.

There are always novels that you envy people for not yet having read, for the pleasures they still have to come. Well, this is one. Long, dark, twisted and satisfying, it's a fabulous piece of writing, but Waters's most impressive achievement is that she also makes it feel less like reading, more like living: an unforgettable experience.


Julie Myerson

The GuardianTramp

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