‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters – a lunatic asylum at its worst

‘Fingersmith’, shortlisted for both the Man Booker and the Orange Prize, is historical fiction at its best. The novel is set in the fin de siècle London. Sarah Waters, having achieved a doctorate in Victorian Literature, shows great attention to detail, and Victorian London is well-depicted.

The language is nevertheless very contemporary, and we don’t feel we read a heavy Victorian novel judging the dialogue and the amount of description. Whereas the writers of this period, such as Zola and Dostoyevsky, over-described the surroundings of the characters, Sarah Waters uses clipped, modern dialogues and her description is much more economical. We are immersed in the contrast between the poor and the rich, and we get surprised how the line between the two can be crossed.  I particularly like the house of crooked children that could be considered as the eponymous fingersmiths. This is reminiscent of ‘Oliver Twist’ by Charles Dickens which is even mentioned in the novel.

‘Fingersmith’ tells the story of two girls whose lives were forever intertwined, i.e. Sue Trinder and Maud Lilly. The former is a daughter of a murderess, who was prosecuted shortly after giving birth. Since then, Sue is looked after by Mrs Sucksby, who treats her as her own daughter, and she is clearly favourited among the cooks. Maud Lilly is a lady and heiress. Her life surrounds by reading and painting. Orphaned at birth, she does not have anyone to look after her or teach her about real life. Nevertheless, the fortune will only be passed to her if she marries. Her uncle, Mr Lilly, cares nothing but his books and has no interest in Maud apart from passing on to her the love of reading. 

‘Fingersmith’ – Killer twists

Sue is then hired by Gentleman to crook Maud and take her inheritance. In exchange for her efforts, she will be paid and receive some of Maud’s wardrobe. The passionate affair develops between both Maud and Sue, but this does not last long. Sue is then deceived by both Gentleman and Maud. She gets locked in the lunatic asylum. 

Even though the setting was previously used, the novel is very original and compelling. There are the same killer twists in and many revelations. My favourite twist is that Sue Trinder is a true heiress and a lady. But equally interesting is the twist at the end of the book, i.e. Maud, who led a sheltered life, decides to write lesbian books and form a relationship with Sue Trinder. The book also takes an interesting take on lesbian relationships and sexuality. The love scenes are very explicit. 

The book depicts a lunatic asylum at its worst. Sue Tinder, who is locked in the facility, is a healthy normal girl, but she suffers abuse and is demeaned all the time by horrible nurses. The doctors lack contemporary knowledge of mental health impairments. For this reason, they are not any better. 

In my view, ‘Fingersmith’ can be recommended to both the fans of historical fiction as thriller fanatics. It is my first novel by Sarah Waters but definitely not the last. Share your thoughts about this on my Twitter! Also, feel free to read all my other book reviews. Enjoy!