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.