My latest literary discovery that makes me excited is the Welsh writer Sarah Waters. She is a contemporary author who received critical and public acclaim with her historical fiction set in Victorian England. Often compared to Dickens, her narrative style collates wordy descriptions with an arresting plot, but being an artist of our times, she broaches such subjects that the Victorians would never have allowed to see the light.
To read Fingersmith is to be enthralled by its addictive atmosphere and plot. It starts slowly, introducing the ways of the thief-ridden Victorian London and the conditions in which the main character, Susan, was raised. This leisurely narrative then segues into a thrilling plot which turns your world upside down by the end of part one.
The action starts off with a plan of two swindlers to cheat a young heiress out of her fortune. The young woman – Maud – is living with her uncle in a remote manor house in the English countryside. As was the law of those times, only after her marriage would she be entitled to a substantial dowry that would immediately be handed to her husband. So one of the swindlers, Gentleman, is to enchant the lady, compel her to marry him in secret, get hold of her money and then admit her to a madhouse (as was not the least uncommon way of getting rid of nuisance women). As for Susan, her role is to become Maud’s maid and confidant so that she can sway the innocent girl into the ugly business of running away.
The tension builds up as the plan is put into motion and is bound to go awry, but since there’s no guessing when that’s going to happen, you expect a twist at every corner. And with a masterful brushstroke, the author subverts all your expectations when you least anticipate it.
Sarah Waters has a fine way with words: she weaves beautiful descriptions of London streets and the countryside, and she makes the characters’ feelings and motivations come alive. The novel definitely has what we call an atmosphere. The kind that steadily drags you in until you get so immersed you forget to leave it even when you put down the book. The author also has a good feeling for pace. The 550-page story never comes to a standstill.
Sarah Waters is one of those authors who received their degree in literature and then got into writing. She wrote her PhD thesis on gay literature in nineteenth-century England, and this background is reflected in her choice of settings and themes. She does extensive research for every novel, and it really shows in her attention to detail.
She has absolutely topped the list of my favourite contemporary authors, and I can’t wait to get my hands on her other novels.