More and better from Sarah Waters

March 10, 2002|By Victoria A. Brownworth | By Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters. Riverhead Books. 520 pages. 25.95.

Some novelists burst onto the literary scene with a brilliant first book and each subsequent book is weaker and more disappointing than the last. Then there are those few whose first book is exciting and fresh and each new work is ever fuller, deeper. English novelist Sarah Waters fits the latter category. Her debut novel, Tipping the Velvet (Riverhead, 1999) was a New York Times Notable Book; her second novel, Affinity (Riverhead) garnered the London Sunday Times Writer of the Year Award. Her new novel, Fingersmith, is, in a word, superb.

It's tempting to minimize Waters' work by calling it genre fiction; it's true her tales are both historical novels and mysteries -- but those genres describe only part of the exquisitely nuanced character of her work. These books are also intricately crafted, deftly textured tales of life in Victorian Englad, a period with which Waters is so fluent her books resonate with details only one who has lived in that time should rightly know.

Her books startle, though the shocks are subtly woven; Waters has a velvet touch as she sets her scene. She writes of the grimy underbelly of a period in which class and gender defined all; she melds Dickens and Austen, throwing a little Jack the Ripper and Fagin into the mix to get the blood going. It's awesome.

The protagonist and narrator of Fingersmith (a Victorian term for petty thief), Susan Trinder, is the daughter of a thief turned murderess. Susan's mother was hanged soon after her inauspicious birth, leaving Susan to be raised in a London slum, the Borough, by Mrs. Sucksby, a baby marketeer. Mrs. Sucksby loves Susan, who resembles her own dead child; she never farms her out nor sets her stealing. Mrs. Sucksby and her friend the fence, Mr. Ibbs, have grander plans for Susan, plans which come to pass on the eve of Susan's 17th birthday.

It's the proverbial dark and stormy night when Richard Rivers, or Gentleman as he's known to the Borough folk, comes calling with his scheme to scam a wealthy and eccentric bibliophile of his fortune by wedding the man's young niece, then having her committed to a madhouse. To bring the plan to fruition he needs Susan; she is to be Maud Lilly's maid, ingratiating herself to the young woman and easing her toward Gentleman. For Susan's efforts she'll receive part of the fortune as well as Maud's clothes and jewelry.

Susan leaves London, having been taught the ways of ladies' maids and is soon ensconced at Briar, the Lillys' deteriorating estate in Maidenhead. Once there she begins her work on the pale and soulful Maud, whose night terrors lead her to request the presence of Susan in her bed night after night. Then Gentleman arrives and his true plan for Maud and Susan is revealed as is the import of the old man's bibliomania. Waters turns the tale around, introducing a new narrator who utterly recasts Susan's story.

What happens in the last section of the novel stuns; Waters twists and turns her tale in compellingly provocative ways and richochets the novel's trajectory dramatically from one harrowing event to another, culminating in a conclusion that does more than mirror Dickens, it's a reconfiguring of him. (To say more would be to give away a devilishly well-wrought plot.)

Waters has an extraordinary gift for narrative and an expert hand with detail. Her characters, no matter how briefly sketched, are vividly true; Susan and Maud are magnificent. And throughout there is Waters crisp, startling language, her sensual description, her infinite grasp of Victorian idiom. Remarkable, riveting reading, Fingersmith is wrought by a true wordsmith from whom we are bound to see ever more impressive work as time goes by.

Victoria A. Brownworth has written and edited numerous books. Her most recent, Leaving Her, will be published in 2002 by Haworth Press. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and is currently at work on a history of faith healing in America.

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