Another impeccable novel from Sarah Waters. Published in 1999, Affinity was Waters’ second novel, and significantly gloomier than Tipping the Velvet and it’s follow up Fingersmith. Set in London in the 1870’s, Margaret Prior is an upper-middle class woman who visits the prisoners of Millbank Prison as a sort of penance following a failed suicide after the death of her father. She is an unhappy woman who struggles with many aspects of her life including her overbearing mother and her lack of independence. By visiting the prisoners at Millbank she hopes to escape her troubles and provide companionship and guidance to the female prisoners. On one visit, however, she glances into a cell to find the woman inside gently holding a flower and finds herself instantaneously captivated.
The book then develops the relationship between the prisoner, Selena, and Margaret. The story unfolds in two narratives, one of the current events in both Millbank prison and in Margaret’s home, and one of the events in the years leading up to Selena’s trial and imprisonment. Notably absent is a storyline explaining Margaret’s background; we know she attempted to take her own life but this event was not described in depth, and we also didn’t get much of a glimpse into the relationship between Margaret and her Father, which would have been helpful in explaining why his death warranted a suicide from his daughter. There is an additional relationship from Margaret’s past which bears importance on the events of the novel that is not explored. What WAS explored in depth though was fantastic. I LOVED the supernatural elements and the fact that Selena is a mystic who speaks to the dead. The occult-y vibe of the whole book was excellent. The narrative unfurls slowly but steadily towards a pretty fantastic (in my humble opinion) and unexpected conclusion. Sarah’s novels are long and a little slow, but as I mentioned in my review of The Night Watch the payoff is usually pretty great!