Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

This is the story of two women, both prisoners in their own different ways and drawn together by a special bond – their ‘affinity’.

Margaret Prior is a single woman of twenty nine who, following the death of her father, begins visiting London’s Millbank Prison as a Lady Visitor. Lady Visitors were women who voluntarily visited prisoners with the aim of befriending them and giving them comfort during the time of their imprisonment. However, Margaret is in need of some friendship and comfort herself. From her very first visit, she finds herself strangely drawn to Selina Dawes, a young spiritualist imprisoned for assault after one of her spiritualism sessions goes badly wrong, leaving a woman dead and a girl traumatised.  Selina blames her ‘control spirit’, Peter Quick, for what happened, but is she telling the truth?

The book is told in the form of diary entries – Margaret’s longer sections being interspersed with Selina’s shorter ones. Margaret’s diary entries are very bleak and miserable, as she is trying to cope not only with the loss of her father, but also with her feelings for both Selina and her sister-in-law Helen, the expectations of her domineering mother, and the sense of being ‘left behind’ that she experiences when her younger sister gets married and leaves home. Although I found it difficult to like Margaret, I did have a lot of sympathy for her – she had been labelled a ‘spinster’ and was bound by the conventions of the time, preventing her from studying and leading the kind of life she wanted to lead.  I really wanted her to find happiness with Selina.

Selina’s sections of the story are very vague and confusing and I didn’t fully understand them until I went back and read them again after reaching the end of the book. Her entries chronicle the events leading up to the death of Mrs Brink at the seance, and allow us to watch the development of Selina’s spiritualist abilities and the first appearances of the spirit Peter Quick.  Throughout the story, the reader is made to wonder whether Selina really has the powers she claims to have or if Margaret is the victim of an elaborate hoax.

I enjoyed learning about life in a Victorian prison, as it’s not something I’ve read about in so much detail before. Waters does a wonderful job of conveying the oppressive atmosphere of Millbank, with its labyrinthine corridors and gloomy wards.

I haven’t read all of Sarah Waters’ books yet so I can’t really say where Affinity stands in comparison to her others, but I thought it was an excellent book – suspenseful, moving and with some passages that were genuinely spooky.


11 thoughts on “Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

  1. Aarti says:

    I really enjoyed this book, too! I also found Selina’s entries confusing until the end (as I assume we’re supposed to?). But then it all became clear! I hope to read Night Watch soon-ish.

  2. Jessica says:

    This book seems to give strong reactions, ppl seem to think its an excellent read or only so-so. I have read Fingersmith and the Little Stranger which I really enjoyed, mostly I think for the writing itself but this one is also on my TBR list after The Night Watch.

    • Helen says:

      I can’t wait to read Fingersmith – it seems to be one of those books that everyone has read and loved, so I feel a bit embarrassed that I haven’t got round to reading it yet.

    • Helen says:

      If her other books are all better than this one, then I’m really looking forward to reading them! I’m definitely going to read Fingersmith as soon as possible.

  3. swongs1126 says:

    Hi Helen, it’s Sarah, first time leaving a comment. I’m currently reading this novel at the moment but still not finished it yet. I would like to go on reading it till the end but there are some ideas which bother me quite as much. It’s that when Selina acted as a spirit-medium in the novel, how does she present that to the audience like Mrs Brink? Because sometimes when she introduces Mrs Brink’s mother, or even in the case of Peter Quick, the spirits sometimes, to my understandings, are conjured up and present as actual images in voice and body to them whereas Selina unconsciously stayed behind and tied in the cabinet; however Selina sometimes to me would be acting out in the voice and body of the spirit. So is the audience actually feeling or seeing the image of the spirits acting out and presented in Selina’s body? Thank you!

    • Helen says:

      Hi Sarah. Thanks for commenting, but I don’t think I can really answer your question. It’s been so long since I read this book (nearly five years) that I can’t remember all the details of the plot and I don’t have a copy at home to be able to check. I think, though, that if you keep reading to the end of the book, a lot of those things will be explained. Selina’s sections of the story are supposed to be mysterious and confusing, so that the reader doesn’t know exactly what is happening until the end.
      Sorry I can’t be more help, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the book!

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