Classic Gothic Thriller: A Review of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Are you looking for a book that will keep you reading long past your bed time? Are you interested in a story full of wicked villains, twisted crimes, creaky old haunted houses, and so many plot twists that you’re never sure what’s going to happen next? Are you also perhaps a lover of anti-heroes, not-so-innocent-damsels-in-distress, and cases of mistaken identity?  

If these elements sound appealing to you, then I would highly recommend picking up the historical novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters. This book is set in Victorian England, and it is truly a Gothic literary classic in the vein of other favorites in this genre such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. The complete work clocks in at just over 500 pages, which should make it a monstrous and perhaps sluggish read. However, the palpable tension and eerie mood of fear and terror that hangs over the entire story makes the pages fly by in a feverish whirlwind as you race for the finish, trying to imagine what sort of ending this story can possibly have when it’s full of so many strange and seemingly irredeemable figures.

You also can’t help but worry for the two main protagonists, and fall in love with them just as they start to fall in love with each other. The first part is narrated by Susan Trinder, born in London’s slummish Borough and raised by thieves and cutpurses, infamous for being the daughter of a woman who was hanged as a murderess in a public execution in London. Then the thread is taken over by Maud Lilly, who is (to all outward appearances) a sheltered and naive gentlewoman living with her book-obsessed uncle in a large manor house called Briar. The manor house itself is set firmly in the back end of the country and is in a dismal state, a fitting setting for any good Gothic novel.

The events that follow are all set into motion by a scheming thief and all-around-disreputable figure referred to as Gentleman, as he asks Susan to be part of a mad scheme he seemingly cooked up himself. However, appearances in this novel are often not what they appear. And the circumstances may be deceiving, as Susan herself later figures out – sadly when it’s much too late to do anything about it. But the original scheme as presented to Susan is that Gentleman, posing as a Mr. Rivers, and Susan, posing as a lady’s maid, will attempt to lure the presumably innocent Maud Lilly into an illicit marriage. This sham marriage is only a mean’s to end though, as Gentleman claims that he only wants to enter this marriage so that he and Susan can consign Maud to the madhouse and then make off with her not-insignificant fortune. However, even though the first part of the plot goes through mostly as planned, the resulting plot twist from these actions is one that Susan (and very few readers) will likely see coming. It’s just the first in a seemingly never-ending maze of mind games that heighten your excitement at every turn.

Through a tangled web of thrilling escapes, bloodthirsty crimes, and shocking revelations, Waters spins a story that is truly engaging and unique, and as you get deeper into the story you find yourself drawn into the lives of the characters so completely that you almost feel as if the walls of the manor house or the madhouse are closing in on you, making you desperate for the possibility of escape. Meanwhile, both Susan and Maud, despite their attempts at finding freedom in their separate ways, are nonetheless caught up in the rigid boundaries set by class and gender, until you’re left wondering just how it might be possible to ever break free from such a merciless system. Truly, it would require a Houdini-like author to sort out this puzzle, but luckily Waters is up to the task, sorting out the question at the heart of this novel, which is ultimately not about schemes or thieves or madmen at all, but is truly about Susan and Maud and their growing feelings for one another.

Will they allow themselves to become victims of their society and wind up married, in jail, or in the madhouse? Or will they unite and find true freedom together? In the words of another infamous Victorian literary character, “The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!” 

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