Book Review: Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters
Posted on September 19, 2013
What a page-turner! This was such a fantastic read, and were I of another generation, social class, and cultural background, I can imagine calling it a “ripping yarn!” whilst standing before an open fire at the club, drinking brandy, and smoking a pipe. Fingersmith is beautifully written and reminiscent of Dickens, and would be more so had he written poignantly about lesbians … Well, never mind, Waters has taken up the job. Perhaps this is not so much a review of this book, as it is a recommendation to read it and love it.
I could focus on many aspects of why this is such a wonderful piece of writing, but there are many good reviews explaining that. Instead, I will say what made it so powerful for me, which is best illustrated by the metaphor of the thread. I will unpick it a bit here.
Thread is a recurring motif in Fingersmith, and there are many mentions of it, both as a the useful stuff it is and as an apt metaphor (in this case, the needle is the metaphor, but it still fits with the overall motif): “Dainty said I had got so sharp, if you could have found a way of threading me with cotton, you could have sewn with me.” There is the simple, honest thread as used to bind garments — but even that thread is really not so simple, as sewing is not only a chore and a necessity of life, but also a distraction that allows others to pull tricks whilst the seamstress is engaged with her work. Thread can spell out a lover’s name on a much-handled glove that still carries her scent, or it can be the needlework that must be ripped out to hide the truth that the glove is stolen.
There are threads of smoke, threads of steam, threads of spittle, threads of blood, threads of story, even threads of a button that one woman believes to be her “babies.” There are the “threads” of a spider’s web which, in this complex plot, quickly become webs-within-webs of tightly-binding and suffocating gossamer, from which the reader wonders how the poor moths will ever struggle their way out. No matter, these are exceptionally crafty moths!
Most significantly, there is the thread that holds the two main characters, Sue and Maud, to one another: a thread that tugs at them, no matter where they are, how far apart physically and emotionally. (And yes, of course, one thinks of an umbilical cord, but also of other connections, such as the mythical ‘golden thread’ binding soul to body.) I think Waters is masterful at tugging on that thread, which the reader slowly comes to realise has attached itself to her own heart — or, that’s what happened to me, anyway. That tug was the undercurrent to everything else, and kept me reading. I had to see whether the thread eventually and inevitably led Sue and Maud back to one another, or finally broke, being too weak to stand against the terrible forces brought to bear upon it.
Sue and Maud are quite young women, being only seventeen, and neither of them has experienced romantic love until they meet. In fact, they have hardly experienced love of any kind at all, in their so-far brief and brutal lives. It is these two characters’ fundamental innocence — shellacked over with a kind of necessarily-hard protective shell — that makes their love so achingly sad, tender, and poignant. The reader gleans early on that it is only this fierce and tremulous love that will keep both girls from creating a finally-impenetrable patina against kindness, compassion, and goodness. Throughout the book, this love is dangled from a thread as an improbable hope, or an impossible dream, representing a different kind of life from what either has had before. Love, of course, offers redemption, if they have the courage to seek it, and it is what could keep these two life-toughened but essentially decent young women from a final and devastating corruption.
Here are some quotes from the book, in which Sue talks about the “thread” connecting her to Maud:
“But, here was a curious thing. The more I tried to give up thinking of her, the more I said to myself, ‘She’s nothing to you’, the harder I tried to pluck the idea of her out of my heart, the more she stayed there … I felt her, through the walls of the house, like some blind crooks are said to be able to feel gold. It was as if there had come between us, without my knowing, a kind of thread. It pulled me to her, wherever she was. It was like — It’s like you love her, I thought.”
“I went back to my narrow bed, with its sheets like pieces of pastry. I heard her turning, and sighing, all through the night; and I turned, and sighed, myself. I felt that thread that had come between us, tugging, tugging at my heart — so hard, it hurt me.”
It does not matter* whether you are male or female, straight or gay, Sue’s and Maud’s love story is subtle and complex, palpable and intoxicating, and worthy of a great book and grateful readers.
* (Well, it does matter, I suppose, if you are a straight person who is appalled by lesbians. Then, I guess, it’s not the book for you.)