Named Author of the Year at the 2003 British BookAwards, Sarah Waters is the author of Tipping the Velvet, a New York Times Notable Book. Once inside the concrete walls of Millbank Prison, Margaret Prior, hired to speak with the female inmates, becomes all too aware that what she perceives to be reality may not be so. Bringing new ideas to her mind is the beautiful, but dangerous criminal Selina Dawes.
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When Margaret Prior accepts to become a 'Lady Visitor' at Millbank Prison in London, she is far from suspecting what tangled skeins await her in the endless corridors of the dank and cold prison, with it's wing holding women prisoners who are there for crimes as diverse as attempted suicide, infanticide, arson, petty theft, and fraud. Recovering from an undefined nervous illness brought on by the grief following the death of her father, she believes this will be a worthwhile occupation to fill her time away from home and her overbearing mother, and will bring much-needed relief to the women prisoners who are living in deplorable conditions in the jail, where the emphasis, typical of the times, is on punishment. Her presence gives the prisoners a rare opportunity in the day to speak to someone, for they are expected to be silent at all times otherwise, and it gives them a small break in their continual chores, as well as a chance for some empathy from a stranger rather than the harsh treatment they can expect from the prison matrons who seem to delight in taunting them continually.
Margaret is only interested in listening to the women speak of their experiences and describe their crimes rather than giving pious sermons to the women, as other lady visitors tend to do, and she is taken by the matrons around the jail to see how it is run, which allows the reader to get a comprehensive view of how things stood for women prisoners in 1874. It is rather obvious that Waters did thorough research for the novel and the details are many and quite striking. She writes beautifully and sets the mood perfectly so that one is carried along fascinating scenery in expectation of events to come. To some readers these scenes might seem too prolonged, but I found the details fascinating and as I listened to the audio version beautifully narrated by Juanita McMahon, was all too happy to be carried along the story at a deliberately observant pace.
When Margaret first sees Selina Dawes alone in her cell with her pale face turned to the sun, her attention is arrested. Selina is holding a violet, which she can't possibly have obtained from within the prison, so that its very presence there seems almost miraculous. Selina herself has a delicate and mysterious beauty, and soon Margaret visits her regularly and learns she is a spirit medium who is continually in contact with ghosts. Selina claims the ghosts bring her gifts, such as that violet Margaret saw her with. Furthermore, she says they can spirit her out of the jail anytime they wish to, but that they have a purpose for having sent her there, and soon it emerges that the purpose is for Margaret and Selina to have come together, for they are each other's Affinity.
But this is no simple lesbian romance story. And if one is patient enough and can enjoy the journey, the novel becomes a suspenseful ride which is impossible to put down in the second half and promises a big reveal in the end.