Wow, I’m suffering from a major book hangover right now. I was going to write this right away, but I couldn’t get my thoughts together coherently. So, now that I’ve switched my summer clothes for winter, I think I’m ready to write my review.
I read this book because it’s apart of my ‘edgy’ book club. That being said, look for a Book Club discussion in two weeks. If this review piques your interest, you’ve got two weeks before I’ll discuss it in depth (again). I’m not sure I would have grabbed it otherwise, which is part of the magic of book clubs.
This book is historical fiction with some magical realism and homosexuality. When I looked at this book on Goodreads, I was surprised how many lesbian/gay/GLBT lists it was on. For the first half of the book there were very few references to the character’s sexualities. It does become a rather central theme, however, so if that bothers you, it might be best to avoid this book. From what I can tell, Waters is referred to by some as the Queen of Lesbian Victorian England Melodrama. Quite the niche.
I love some good historical fiction and I think Waters did a great job of writing 1870s London. The setting and cultural norms of the time are very key; a woman’s place in society, the elite of the time, and traveling norms are central to the book. This was one of those historical fiction novels where the reader feels like they’re living in the period; like a maid is going to come empty my chamber pot and stoke the fire for me in only a few minutes. I did greatly enjoy this part of Waters’ writing.
The book focuses a lot on Spiritualism. One of the female leads, Selina, is in Millbank prison due to a mishap at a seance she was conducting that left one woman dead and another deeply disturbed. Selina’s skill as a spiritualist and medium is discussed at length and takes a central role in the book. The narrator, Margaret, goes to visit the prisoners at Millbank as a part of her recovery from a suicide attempt. She is slowly sucked into Selina’s world of spirits, secrets, and conspiracies. I’ll stop here, but this book takes everything you thought you knew about the characters and turns you on your head in the last twenty pages. Waters mastered the “WHAT THE F…” moment very well.
The format of the book was the first thing that caught my attention. The narrator jumps from Margaret in ‘current’ time to Selina two years before, preceding her conviction and lock-up. Both are written in a journalistic style but with distinct voices. I was confused by this for the first ten pages or so, and later looked forward to the chapters in Selina’s voice, which were much shorter and leading. (Good trick, Waters!)
The most memorable character for me was Peter Quick, the spirit that Selina conjures and can give a human form. The writing leaves you guessing at his intentions beyond the last page. I know he will be a point of discussion at our book club meeting! He’s a playful spirit who seems to want to escape his spirit-state while retreating into it at the same time.
If I were to guess at the message Waters is trying to bring across, it would have to do with not judging people by your first opinion of them. Through Margret’s discussions with the inmates, she learns the various reasons they were put in jail and sympathizes for many of them. One woman was imprisoned for making fake coins and she explains the economic system of the poor and coiners in London and how she is a victim of circumstance. She is a part of a community of people who pass fake coins; she makes them and gets them as change so its not always her fake that she’s passing.
At the same time, Margaret has placed her faith in a good friend, Helen, who ends up betraying her. Even though Helen seems like a respectable woman of the time, the reader learns how she betrayed Margaret and is fake to her husband.
Apart from this, it’s hard to see if there is a message or theme. I don’t think Waters is making any comments on sexuality other than a few brief comments about how lesbian relationships were not accepted at the time, but we know this from Oscar Wilde’s life. One could argue she comments on the roles of woman at the time but again this is not surprising to anyone with any brief knowledge of Victorian England.
Writer’s Takeaway: I think this book is a good example of a journalistic style. Waters mixes Margret’s feelings with dialogue to create a compelling story. Unlike some diary formats, the dialogue is believable as a memory from the day. Instead of direct quotes, Margret writes summaries of what was said and doesn’t put all of what she remembers in quotations, leaving one to believe she’s aware it’s not exactly the right words.
I said before, and I’ll say again, Water’s did a great job at a “WHAT THE F…” moment at the end. It’s a great example of how to leave the reader second guessing their thoughts on the characters. It’s like The Sixth Sense where you’ll want to go back to see if those hints were there the whole time. The connections are subtle enough that I didn’t notice them at first (though I did have an inkling at one point), but memorable enough that when the brain blow comes, I could recall the times where the narrator was duped.
Overall, recommended as a fiction story, not so much as historical fiction because of it’s lack of historical elements apart from setting.
Three out of five stars.