Fingersmith: Sarah Waters
“Fuck this cheap life, in all its forms – eh, Sue?”
At one point in the first third of this 500+ page novel, protagonist and narrator Sue Trinder remarks that, even in hindsight, it is difficult to remember who-knows-what-part of the villainous plot she is embroiled in. The reader is as ignorant as Sue – fact which comes crashing down like the doors to a madhouse at the end of Part I, and nearly sent me flying out of my seat.
Then, after all, maybe this book of secrets isn’t so crafty after all. Plot twists aside, the pace is slow – sometimes achingly slow. The story shifts back to the beginning, with Maude voicing the action, and becomes a veritable competition of first-person narrators. By the time all plans are laid bare (rather late, around page 500), the girl’s voices and situations are so similar, and the subplot of who-knows-what so intricate, the reader must abandon emotion for logic.
Or vice versa. I chose to be caught in the story and drift along like flotsam, only going back to recall and parse later, in the second and third readings of this book.
I realize I sound as though I didn’t enjoy it. That’s untrue – it was certainly engrossing, certainly inventive – and descriptive – if at times more interested in the by-lines of its characters than in the plot, which is a shame. By the end, I found myself greatly preferring one protagonist to the other. There are a number of lives I would have liked more detail on – what drives Richard to his ends? – and some closure seemed injected for pure spite.
The very-lesbian obsession with fingers. Secret upon secret: Maude’s dresses; Sue’s illiteracy; the books (so peaceful and unassuming) on the shelves; the name ‘Gentleman’ given to an absolute scoundrel.
I found its layers entrapping: they are a little self-consciously sticky. The first-time reader is unaware of all this, of course. And when the plot’s steel jaws close (on Sue, on Maude, on Gentleman), they also close around the reader.
I do not appreciate being taken in. It’s a fine line to some, how to withhold information without trickery; this book betrays. It digs a pit and mocks the reader for falling when you have been blindfolded and lead by the hand …The middle section is a bit of a wash, for that very reason; subsequent readings made it more palatable, as my arguments with the characters (motivation, actions) were nearly silenced by the casual pace and gentle – surprisingly gentle – writing. For the first and only time, the tone matches the meaning; and doubts fall away, as they do beneath the hand of an artist: we are lead where we are driven, and are no longer shocked when the drop comes.
“Now comes the first failing, or shrinking back, of my heart.”