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Megan ([personal profile] mixedmetaphors) wrote2017-04-22 09:02 am

Shuffle 2: Sarah Waters, Fingersmith (2002)

Fingersmith cover"She has made a fiction of herself!"

Sarah Waters's Fingersmith revolves around a Victorian heist: a charming con man aims to marry Maud Lilly, a reclusive and naive heiress, then commit her to a madhouse and steal her fortune. Seventeen-year-old Sue Trinder, an orphan who grew up among a band of London thieves, is drafted to play the role of Maud's persuasive maid. She'll facilitate Gentleman's courtship of Maud and insinuate herself into Maud's confidence, where she would help squash any doubts Maud might have about the love affair. In serving and becoming close to Maud, however, Sue finds that both her mark and her feelings toward her are more complicated than she expected. What ensues is a Victorian sensation novel's worth of twists and dirtiness and melodrama. And, also, love.

Fingersmith consists of layers of stories: secrets and lies, histories and retellings, interpretations and misinterpretations, the constricted narratives of bloodlines and diagnoses. Stories manipulate and control the listener; they're tools of the trade for the thieves and liars that populate Sue's world. But even the tellers of stories can be tricked by their own narratives. Tellers, convincing themselves, can create their own blindspots. Waters plays with those gaps in the construction of her intricate plot. Even though I saw the BBC adaptation and so knew the twists (though it was years ago, and I was fuzzy on some of the details), I still enjoyed reading the book, because Waters choreographs her subterfuges elegantly. For all the awfulness in this book--and it's full of poverty, abuse, and injustices of all kinds--it's still utterly gripping, in true sensation novel fashion.

In defense of the timelessness of the written word, as opposed to the blunt and inescapable context provided by photographs, Maud's uncle says at one point, "But words, Hawtrey, words—hmm? They seduce us in darkness, and the mind clothes and fleshes them to fashions of its own." It's part of a debate the characters are engaged in, but it's also a wink to the thematic heart of this book--to the stories and the lies being woven, and (mis)interpretations and assumptions of the characters and of the reader. The in-book seduction of characters, the out-of-book seduction of the reader. Waters knows what she's doing. And that made this an excellent read.

*** Spoilers for the entirety of Fingersmith follow! ***

In a book so concerned with stories and storytelling, I was fascinated by the role literacy played. Sue's illiteracy is used to tease her, trick her, and trap her. When characters supposedly report to her the contents of documents and letters, we later find out that said characters lied to her, and did so mockingly. When she is mistaken for Maud and imprisoned in an asylum, the doctors take Sue's inability to write as evidence of her madness and not evidence that she actually isn't the literate Maud.

However, the power to read and write doesn't necessarily free a woman. Maud's literacy is also used to tease her, trick her, and trap her. Maud's guardian, her obsessive and abusive uncle, is not the drab scholar that Sue believes he is; he's a collector of pornographic literature, and he has raised Maud from a young age to read and catalogue his immense collection. When similarly inclined visitors arrive, Maud is the evening entertainment: she reads them erotica. The words are only words to her, a means of internalizing the sour and consuming gaze of others. Her uncle knows he has poisoned her, making a normal life impossible, and she has become inured to it. (Well, not quite inured. She's sadistic to her previous maid, for one, taking out her frustrations on a girl who can't fight back.) Her mind and body are controlled and owned by her uncle, and all the heated words, all references to the passions of the body, mean nothing to her.

Until Sue arrives, and then something catches fire. Sue knows nothing of the true nature of Maud's work as her uncle's secretary, but she does discover that Maud has more complicated feelings than simply the lovesickness of an easily seduced and gullible girl. Sue finds herself revising her previous interpretations, coming to realize that Maud is fearful of Gentleman, that she isn't in love with him: "I heard the hiss of his whispers, the rush of his breath as he laughed. But Maud was silent. And when he left, and took her hand and pressed it to his mouth, she trembled so hard, I thought back to all the times I had watched her tremble before, and wondered how I had ever mistaken that trembling for love." Unfortunately, Sue is unable to completely break free of the narrative framework that Gentleman imposed on the situation--that he and Sue are running a con on Maud, that Maud is an innocent who knows nothing of the world, not the way that streetsmart Sue does--and that's her downfall, because she can't fathom that, in fact, Gentleman and Maud--among others--are running are running a con on her. Her skills of interpretation, her soft heart, can only take her so far.

The two young women are emotionally intimate, initially, because each is running a con on the other. But in being so attentive to one another, they develop a true intimacy, a physical intimacy, and a real love. The only reason that the plot being sprung on the both of them doesn't truly succeed, the reason why the book ends with both of them more free than how they started, is because their relationship--their true affection and understanding, underneath all the subterfuge--changed the plot. And, while in doubt for most of the book, it survives all the machinations against them that forced betrayals and separations between them. It gave them an ally when manipulators try to isolate and control them. Sue doesn't learn the whole truth until the final pages of the book, when she finds a legal document and has to hunt down someone to read it for her, and then she realizes the bigger story that had been written around her the entire time.

The last image of the book, the last words of the book, are the two women reunited, and Maud showing Sue the words of the book she's writing. To financially support herself, Maud is now writing her own erotica, but about the two of them. For what empowerment can be grasped in their situations, this is the most poetic.

I had minor quibbles with Fingersmith, and in general I have a hard time stomaching melodrama and so much manipulation (SO MUCH MANIPULATION), but I thought it was an excellent, very rich book.

For Shuffle 3, these three books were randomly selected:

Judy Budnitz, If I Told You Once (2000)
Sara Novic, Girl At War (2016)
Leila Aboulela, Minaret (2006)

I read and loved Leila Aboulela's most recent novel, The Kindness of Enemies, earlier this year, and I've been meaning to read more by her. I didn't even give the options a fair shake; I went straight for Minaret, started reading, and haven't stopped. So that's what's up next. :)