This is the first book by Sarah Waters that I have read. Because of this, I came to the book with few assumptions or expectations. I did,however, hope that the book would live up to the comment on the front that it was "sexy, spooky and stylish". Having now finished it, I can happily say it was all of these things and more.
The story follows Margaret, a young Victorian lady who is close to becoming a spinster. When she is first introduced, the reader is given the impression that something has happened to her - she seems troubled, and there is mention that she has not been 'well'. We later learn that, for some reason, she attempted suicide. Her family seems to think that it would do her good to go to volunteer at a prison, Millbank, to visit the female prisoners. It seems she is to become a sort of confidante to them, if they wish. While this situation in itself is quite interesting, while on one of her visits, Margaret sees one lady who intrigues her. This mysterious lady, Selina Dawes, seems to possess a compelling calmness about her. And, when Margaret first sees Selina in her cell, she is holding a perfect violet in her hands. Where, Margaret wonders, would she have gotten this flower from?
As Margaret learns more about Selina, she discovers that she is a spiritualist, or medium. Her crime involves some kind of alleged abuse against one of her female customers. Margaret, it seems, finds it hard to believe that Selina would be capable of such a crime, and so tries to learn more about her and befriend her - she is drawn to her.
That is a very basic plot. There are many aspects to this novel which make it what it is. I thought Waters has done a fabulous job at describing life in Victorian times; Selina's imprisonment starts to echo Margaret's situation in life and society, as an unmarried woman. The writing is beautiful - there is one passage in particular when Margaret is taken to view the personal belongings of the women, their old clothes, dresses and hair. Margaret likens this room to a tomb - the boxes with all their belongings in are said to remind her of small coffins for babies. It is quite harrowing.
The tension in the book is built up brilliantly too. You know that something horrible is going to happen, so in a way the end is not such a great surprise. I think the relationship between Selina and Margaret is also dealt with very well. There is a very touching part where they are discussing love, and Selina talks about souls having an affinity to each other:-
'"How will a person know, Selina, when the soul that has the affinity with hers is near it?"
'She answered, "She will know. Does she look for air, before she breathes it? This love will be guided to her; and when it comes, she will know. And she will do anything to keep that love about her, then. Because to lose it will be like a death to her.'" (p.210-211)
It is certainly a beautiful idea, and one that brings a lot to the story.
I thought this novel was excellent. It has made me want to read other books by Waters. I just hope that they are as good as this!