by Sarah Waters
After reading and enjoying The Paying Guests, I read an enthusiastic review of this book and ordered it from the library.
Set in Waters’ more familiar territory of the mid-nineteenth century, this story gives a vivid impression of life in a London household of petty thieves, run by a matriarch who ‘farms’ infants and a fence who operates under cover of a locksmith’s shop. One of the story’s main characters, Susan, grows up in this environment. Very different to Susan’s home life, Maud’s is just as tightly circumscribed (in fact, as we gradually learn, much more so). She lives in a secluded country house near Marlow, where she helps her uncle with his literary cataloguing activity.
The lives of the two girls coincide through a plot devised by an acquaintance of the thieves. Their story is told, first in Part One by Susan, and then in Part Two by Maud. This is a very clever device; it throws into relief the similarities and differences between the two girls, and although the timeline and many of the events in their stories are the same, they have very different perspectives and experiences.
I became a bit bored by Part Three. Here, the story is brought to its dramatic conclusion – but by this stage, the reader already knows all the twists in the back story. This section goes into alarming detail in its account of the treatment of patients in a mental institution. The reader is bound to believe that Waters is basing her story on factual accounts – and this makes the description all the more horrific. The ending of the novel is, for me, rather too stretched-out and hard to believe. Nevertheless, I read this book quickly and greedily. The writing is excellent, and the characters got under my skin.