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 follow! )

May 2017

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