Fingersmith is the story of two women and one huge double-cross. Set in Victorian England, the story begins by introducing us to Susan Trinder and her odd family of thieves. Trinder, the daughter of a hanged murderess (as far as she knows), gets a proposal from a confidence man known as Gentleman. Gentleman says he knows of a rich heiress and, with Susan’s help, he thinks he can convince the heiress to marry him. After the marriage, they will put her in a madhouse.
Agreeing, Susan becomes the heiress’ maid. As soon as she arrives at the house, Briar, it becomes clear that there is something wrong with the house and its owner, Mr. Lilly. The servants are cruel and petty. Mr. Lilly insists on silence and won’t let visitors visit a certain part of his library. Susan starts to work on Maud Lilly, the heiress, to further the plan but, over time, starts to fall in love with Maud herself. Since this is 1862, neither Susan nor Maud could admit this. Maud goes ahead with the marriage, and things seem to be falling into place with Gentleman’s plan. But when they arrive at the madhouse to leave Maud, Susan is taken in her place. This was, we learn, the plan all along.
You see what I mean about a double-cross?
After switching to Maud’s perspective, we learn the other side of the story and learn that the creepiness of the house is much more sinister than we were given to understand. We also learn some shocking facts about who was in on the plot. Since the book has been out for almost a decade, I don’t think I’m giving away any spoilers by saying that the novel ends with forgiveness. I don’t entirely understand why Susan forgives Maud. If I were her, I would be very, very angry and in no mood to forgive.
Not only is Fingersmith intricately plotted, but it’s extremely well written. Sarah Waters captures the sights and sounds and even smells of Victorian London, all without over writing. It’s utterly believable, even with all the double-crossing. It was amazing how Waters managed to capture the dialects. You can tell that a lot of research went into this books, but Waters doesn’t pepper the text with random facts like some historical fiction writers do.
Because of the realness, some parts of this book were hard to read, especially the scenes in the madhouse. Even today, asylums are not good places. But back then, it was far to easy to get in and almost impossible to get out. And the nurses and doctors had some very strange ideas about how insane people might be cured–plunges, shocks, deprivation and, once they got their hands on it, electricity. 1862 was before modern psychology came about; it’s even pre-Freud and talk therapy. There’s a wonderful moment near the end when Dr. Christie, the chief doctor at the asylum, realizes that Sue was right all along when she said she was the victim of a case of mistaken identity.
This was a very interesting read. Once I got started last Thursday, I was hooked. I would have finished it earlier, but I was at a library conference until Saturday. I am definitely going to have to track down more of Water’s books.