This is a gripping piece of historical fiction from Sarah Waters, a tale of fraud, insanity and secrets. Fingersmith opens in London, 1962. Susan Trinder, orphaned at birth, is raised by thieves with hearts of gold; rough but loving. When an acquaintance comes with a proposal that no one can refuse, Sue is torn from this world, to go to a new place unknown to her but to someone with whom she has been inextricably linked since birth: she is to play maid to another orphan, this one growing up in a gloomy mansion miles away; wealthy, and with some small signs of madness.
Growing up, Sue is cared for my Mrs Sucksby, a baby farmer who for some reason keeps Sue and becomes a de-facto mother. Along with Mr Ibbs, and miscellaneous other thieves and dodgy types who pass in and out of their home, Sue is raised with love and knows, because she has been kept, that she is somehow special. So when Richard Rivers, known as Gentleman, comes with a proposition, this is Sue’s opportunity to repay for that loving care. Just outside of London there is another girl who is in want of a maid. She is unimaginably wealthy and incredibly sheltered – orphaned, she lives an an empty house with her unconventional bookish uncle and a few servants. Maud is isolated and just on the cusp of falling for the fraudster Gentleman who has mad plans on accessing her wealth. Sue is to play maid to help Maud fall into Gentleman’s trap.
From first-person perspective, Sue’s story sweeps along to the point where I’m wondering how we could have progressed so much through the plot one-quarter of the way through a 550-page book. But then – BAM! – a twist that literally stopped my breath. And a book that was interesting and atmospheric went to unputdownable. It had to be solved, I had to understand what was happening. It’s long, dark and twisted. I tore through it when reading, and when I wasn’t I pondered on the morality and motivations of the key characters. And so Waters creates a gripping mystery. She is a great storyteller, weaving feeling with thriller.
But beyond the fact it is a rollicking good read, Fingersmith also manages to engage with themes that are contemporarily frustrating but historically accurate. The lack of a woman’s ownership over her own body, wealth or heath; this dismissal of a female emotional experience as hysterical or mad; the price of a life. This is a book very clearly established in its own historical context in an understated and detailed way, but these themes to the current reader just add another layer of compulsion to the reading experience.
Fingersmith is cunningly constructed, deeply serious and also such a good read. There is the time and space for a deep interrogation of the setting, a real understanding of complex characters, and for the reader to doubt their own views and the subjectivity of their narrator. It is an extremely satisfying book.