It’s one of the toughest questions you can ask a reader: “What is your favorite book”. It’s virtually impossible for constant readers to pick just one book as a favorite. And that’s fair, I think... we all find different things we love in different books. Different characters we identify with or love to visit, different plotlines that grab us, different themes that move us.
For years I couldn’t answer the question myself. One or two Christmases ago, though, I picked up a Sarah Waters novel for the first time, lured in by her themes of historical lesbian romance. The book was Affinity. I’d had another of her novels, Fingersmith, on my bookshelf for ages but never got around to reading it. Why Affinity should call to me so strongly, when I hardly even knew what it was about, I’m not sure. But I had no idea what I was getting into.
In a general sense, Affinity reads and feels like a ghost story, dealing with the dark and puzzling world of psychics and spirits. It has an incredibly intimate romantic feel, though, as well, which is of course what attracted me in the first place. But the way Waters paints these two emotive qualities together is downright seamless. That’s what I wasn’t prepared for. Everything comes together so incredibly, so cleverly, you hardly know Sarah’s got you until it’s too late to turn back. And this is a dangerous book for exactly that reason...but I’ll get to that later.
The story, set in Victorian England circa 1870, is told from the point of view of Margaret Prior, a woman who takes up a kind of charity work with lady prisoners. Margaret struggles with complex feelings of depression at a time when depression wasn’t very well understood; as a person who deals with depression myself, I was pleased to pick up on several subtle, nuanced expressions which, at the time period, would hardly even be talked about, but are so meaningful to anyone with a similar pain.
Margaret has complicated family issues as well, not the least of which is the fact her one-time lover has married and had a child with her own brother. Her mother has no compassion for Margaret’s emotional needs, and constantly pesters her to cast off her melancholy and find reasons to be thankful, cheerful, and pleasant. You can’t say the family is really particularly harsh, but it’s no surprise Margaret doesn’t connect with them. Waters does a very neat job of the complexity of real relationships. Nothing is forced; the clash of personality and the disparate values should be familiar to anyone.
I think this is one of the reasons Affinity grabbed me so much. Since reading it, I’ve also caught up on two of Sarah Water’s other novels, Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet, and while I enjoyed both of them, neither really captured me with as much genuineness and authenticity as this one. That’s not to say they weren’t great. Affinity just seems a cut above the rest.
Margaret’s leading lady is Selina Dawes, a psychic medium imprisoned at Millbank for involvement in a woman’s accidental death. From the very first instant Margaret and the reader see Selina, it’s clear there’s something supernatural about her.
Here’s where the book gets you really involved. It doesn’t seem like a supernatural or paranormal story. You know it’s got to do with psychics and supposed messages from the spirit world, things like Ouija boards and séances...but you can’t really tell whether or not there’s real paranormal activity at work. Everything is so finessed, so intricately woven, that you’re absolutely sure there must be real ghosts involved. Then the next chapter takes you out in the light of day with Margaret, walking down the street and considering everything she’s experienced with a more critical eye, and you feel sure everything has to be some kind of hoax. The story all at once feels supernatural and blatantly realist. Ghosts can’t really exist here...but then again, you could swear they do. I’m the kind of reader who likes to pick up clues and predict the solution to the mystery before the character gets there, and I’ve gotten fairly good at it. But with Affinity, I was absolutely boggled. I wager you’ll never guess at the truth until the great reveal.
But my favorite thing about Affinity is the eroticism. Mild spoiler alert: there isn’t even one sex scene in the book. But Waters pulls a deep, bodily sensuality out of her setting and her scenes. The whispers and looks exchanged by the lovers are shockingly affective (that’s not a typo; I don’t mean “effective”, I mean “affective”, as in, they affect you, and significantly). At one point Margaret, organizing the boxes of personal belongings the prisoners are to receive when they are finally released, discovers Selina’s belongings. Among them is a long braid of Selina’s hair, cut off when she entered the prison and they cut her hair short. I swear to God, that braid of her hair is quite possibly the single most erotic symbol in the book. Margaret describes the feel of it in her fingers, against her cheek, and you just shiver all over with the sheer intimacy and desire in her.
This is an incredibly interesting book, honestly. The details of the prison and its workings, the women and their lives, and the curious elements of Selina’s life before Millbank, when she worked as a psychic medium, create a very rich foundation for the development of a ghost story and love story. Like I said, it’s all very intricately woven, the emotions seem so subtle until you realize they’ve all come together to build something terribly significant.
And here’s where the book is dangerous. Waters does such a good job of luring you in and immersing you in this story, when the final climax and the big reveal come, it knocks you flat. At least, it did for me. Another spoiler alert (and this one is more significant), the ending crushed me. It’s intense, it’s powerful, and if you’re a deeply emotional person and especially if you know what it’s like to be a person struggling with depression and isolation, it could easily devastate you. No lie: I couldn’t stop thinking about the story for days afterward. I couldn’t pick up another book. I felt so deeply connected to the lovers that I found myself wanting to literally reach out to them and rescue them from the pages. This book broke me down, and in a beautiful way. I say all the time it wrecked me, but nonetheless I think it’s the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever read.
I haven’t been able to pick it up again for about two years now. I think I may be finally screwing up the courage to give it another read-through, but the idea still scares me a bit. Still, I’ve never wanted so much to crawl into the author’s world, and touch and see and sense all the intricacies of its mystery.
Affinity’s a tough book. But I say with utter confidence, it is my favorite book of all time.