Affinity by Sarah Waters

17 April, 2010

I’ve been meaning to read this book for ages, since I finished The Night Watch last year (which I loved, loved, loved), and had heard many nice things about it, and I finally did! And since I also wanted to watch the TV adaptation, I thought I’d post a joint review similar to that posted by su[shu] for Murakami Haruki’s Tony Takitani.

Unlike the majority of Sarah Waters’ fans, I fell in love with her writing starting with The Little Stranger followed by The Night Watch. I had previously read Fingersmith when it was first published in 2002 and don’t recall it having any serious impact on me. But it looks as though Fingersmith seems to be everyone’s favourite book, so I’ve got a copy on standby for a re-read in the near future.

There is something magical about Waters’ prose. It starts out quietly, silently and slowly draws you in, deeper and wanting more. That was how I felt when reading Affinity. The Night Watch had such an impact on me that I thought somehow I may have been spoilt and not find Affinity as enjoyable. Certainly the style was different, and so was the setting and plot. But Affinity had such atmosphere and, like the main character Margaret, I was completely taken in.

The story begins with Margaret Prior, a spinster in her late twenties, who is recovering from her beloved father’s death. To occupy herself, she has volunteered to go and spend some time talking to and helping the female inmates of Millbank Prison. Here she meets women outside her social circle and discovers Selina Dawes, a spiritual medium who is serving five years for causing harm to a young girl and, indirectly, the death of her patron. Margaret is fascinated by Selina who insists that it was Peter Quick, her spirit conduit who was to blame. In the stifling atmosphere of Millbank Prison, Margaret finds herself drawn to the beautiful girl and soon experiences strange occurrences that can only be attibuted to the work of spirits. Can this be real? And will she be able to save Selina?

Although Waters’ writing is wonderful, I found the book to be rather slow at the beginning. It is only after finishing the book that I realised what a genius Sarah Waters is. The plot is constructed in such a clever way that you are Margaret, and you fall in love, you start to believe in the spirits Selina sees and then you realise suddenly what has really been happening. It all slots into place and you are left reeling, wondering why you never saw what was plainly there in front of your eyes.

Really, you have to read this book. And please read it before you watch the TV adaptation. Because although the adaptation was good, it just isn’t as good as the book.

I thought the casting of Anna Madeley and Zoe Tapper as the two main characters in the TV adaptation was brilliant. The script was written by Andrew Davies who also wrote the scripts for Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth) and Bleak House, both of which I loved. But somehow, you lose something in the translation and I found it a little wanting. As so often happens, I noticed a couple of changes which I felt may have been necessary for the adaptation but changed the meaning of the story a little. However, the cinematography was beautiful and I think it captured the spirit of the book.

It was interesting to watch the DVD straight after reading the book to compare them, but maybe it might have been better if I had let a couple of weeks dampen my enthusiasm for the book so that I could have given the DVD a chance. What do you think?

Sarah Waters Interview

16 August, 2009

Just a quick post. There’s an interview with Sarah Waters on the Man Booker Prize website regarding her well-deserved nomination for The Little Stranger. You can read it here. Thanks to the wonderful Historical Tapestry for pointing this out.

Favourite Writers: Fiction

15 August, 2009

Everytime I am confronted with articles or questionnaires about favourite books and writers, I decide to make my own list and give up after a few minutes. It’s not that I don’t have enough to fill a list, I have too many favourites and I fear that I have forgotten some of the ones I particularly loved. I want to do justice to that list. In author interviews, this is one of the most frequently asked questions and I can almost visualise their quavering when they have to announce to the world their favourite books and authors. They always start or end by saying that this is by no means absolute and it could change tomorrow. That is how I feel too. But there are a number of titles I will always love because of their impact on my thinking at a particular point in my life, and I thought it would be a good exercise to give it a try. Put it down on paper, so to speak.

I generally read a lot of mysteries, historical mysteries, science fiction and fantasy and general/literary fiction and of course, some classics, once in a while. When I was a student I went through a French phase where everything had to originate from the Latin Quarter: Sartre, Beauvouir and Camus. I grew up with the refrain ‘maman est morte’ as Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger or The Outsider in English) is my father’s all time favourite book, a remnant of his student days at the Sorbonne in the late ’60s.

letranger theoutsider

I will be putting up lists divided by genre in the coming weeks but will start with the most general. It’s not a reflection of which is the most important genre for me. I’m open to and have favourites in all. I tend to mix my reading and have several books on the go, but sometimes I find that I need to concentrate on one book just to see it through and do it some justice.

So, let’s start with the following:

General/literary fiction

Donna Tartt (A Secret History)
David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas)
Tahmima Anam (A Golden Age)
Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, Patron Saint of Liars)
Michelle de Kretser (The Hamilton Case)
Sarah Waters (The Night Watch, The Little Stranger)
Romesh Gunasekara (The Match)
Shyam Selvadurai (Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens)
Douglas Coupland (Generation X)
Haruki Murakami (Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)
Kaori Ekuni (Twinkle Twinkle, Calmi Cuori Appassionata – Red (in Japanese only))
Agota Kristof (The Notebook; The Proof; The Third Lie – Three Novels)
Michael Ondaatje (Running in the Family, The English Patient, Anil’s Ghost)

You will notice that I have quite a few Sri Lankan writers in the mix: Michelle de Kretser, Romesh Gunasekara and Shyam Selvadurai. Everytime I go back to Sri Lanka, I always feel a need to read about the country, to immerse myself in the culture and history of the place. And I also stock up on a lot of books there that aren’t available abroad. Perera Hussein Publishing House publishes Sri Lankan authors writing in English and their blog can be found here.

My favourite book of all time is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I first read it as I was revising for my first year undergrad exams. Even though my mind was busy trying to grasp the intricacies of maths and physics, Tartt’s novel gripped me from the start and I spent every moment I could away from my studies burrowed in her book. I haven’t read it in a while so I might give it a go when the mood takes me. Her second book The Little Friend was much anticipated but didn’t have as big an impact and took me a while to get into. There is something about her writing that invokes a feeling within me that I cannot find anywhere else. I finished it still believing she is a great writer even though I didn’t love it as much as The Secret History, and I can’t wait for her next book.



It has been a while since I have finished reading a book, closed its covers and felt that I had just been in the presence of genius. I really liked Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, but I really loved The Night Watch. The novels are totally different and you can’t really compare them: one is a ghost story set in post-war Britain, the other is a novel about love and relationships set post, during and at the beginning of WWII. They visit the same period in history, but the tone, the subject and the emotions explored are different. The Night Watch is a lesbian love story, and although I’m not a lesbian and don’t generally read much gay fiction, it didn’t matter, I found the story devastatingly beautiful and bittersweet.


I confess that I had previously read Water’s earlier work Fingersmith after seeing an adaptation of Tipping the Velvet on TV several years back, but didn’t really feel an affinity (sorry!) to her work. The novel was readable, very well-written and interesting but didn’t deliver the punch that The Night Watch did.

Waters’ novel follows four characters: Duncan, still twenty six and already an ex-con trying desperately but unable to escape from his past, his sister Viv who is in a relationship with a married man, her colleague Helen who is in a relationship with Julia, a mystery novelist, and Kay who is alone and spends her time walking through London. The novel is in three parts starting in 1947 cutting back to 1944 and finishing in 1941. It is a bold and interesting plot construct, but works beautifully. It keeps the reader wanting to know more about the characters and ties the different stories together by revealing the secrets of the characters’ pasts. To me, and I also think to Waters, it is Kay who is the most intriguing. She is the locus that connects the female characters, loving two of them and helping the third in her time of need. She is a solitary character, exuberant and vulnerable at the same time, searching for love but not quite getting what she wants. You want her to be happy and there is something about the way Waters describes her that makes you fall in love with her.

The Night Watch is a complete novel. Waters’ writing is quietly confident. She doesn’t try to shock the reader, you are automatically drawn into the narrative and you don’t want to leave. She has created a world in which you care deeply about all her characters, with their hopes and dreams and flaws. And after you finish, they stay with you for a while.

When I went to her talk at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank last month, many in the audience wanted to know whether she was going to write a sequel to The Night Watch. Waters said she was thinking of one more novel in that historical period, but that she wouldn’t be revisiting her characters. I hadn’t read the book then, but now that I have, I hope she does.

I was lucky enough to see Sarah Waters in conversation with Suzy Feay (formerly literary editor at The Independent) several weeks ago at the London Literature Festival at the Southbank. Waters is a slight, vivacious figure, always with a smile. I hadn’t read The Little Stranger at that point, but was interested in anything written in or about the interwar and postwar period. The talk was enlightening with Waters describing how her interest in the postwar period did not end with the publication of her previous novel The Nightwatch but kept drawing her back until she wrote The Little Stranger. Uncharacteristically for her, her new novel is a ghost story without any lesbian overtones. But this didn’t seem to bother her. And why should it, because Waters has written a beautifully atmospheric novel and has been rightfully longlisted for the 2009 Booker Prize.


A synopsis of the novel can be found here. The narrator of The Little Stranger is Dr. Faraday. We never find out what his first name is. This is a ghost story and a love story and a social history of that particular time when Britain’s social structure was undergoing radical changes. The strict hierarchical divisions of the Edwardian era was disappearing and many amongst the landed gentry were beginning to feel like relics of history, unable to find a place in the new world order. Waters writing style is engaging and effortlessly draws the reader into her story. The characters are sympathetic and troubled, and the growing tension in the book leaves you increasingly uneasy but wanting to know more. Waters said in her talk that she wanted to leave the ending open, but that she had left enough detail/clues for the reader to work out what happened in the end. Many readers voiced their confusion over the ending, but I liked it. The Little Stranger is a measured, confident novel that really sends a chill down your spine.

I’m now reading The Nightwatch and it’s brilliant.