Much of the action in Back Home takes place around the criminal underworld of London in the mid-19th century, so it is hardly surprising that people kept telling me I should read Sarah Waters' books set in the same period. With Back Home finished, I finally got around to Ms Waters and settled down with Fingersmith.
What a treat it turned out to be! Waters is, above all, an astonishingly good writer. In an age which increasingly emphasises story rather than style, her use of language is a joy. Not that she sacrifices story in the interests of literary pretension. Fingersmith is a real page turner. If the plot is at times Dickensian, with twists and turns, mad houses and long lost relatives, thieves’ kitchens and grand houses, then this is at least consistent with its period. And what a grasp of period Sarah Waters has. Many writers force historical factoids down our throats to prove that they have done their research. Others wear their learning so lightly that, even if there are no anachronisms in their books, the characters and situations are not rooted in their period. Fingersmith is remarkable in that every page oozes the reality of the mid-19th century, without ever throwing history at the reader. It is written in the first person and, of course, to somebody living in the period the realities of daily life are mundane. Waters does not make the mistake of drawing attention to things that her characters would have thought un-noteworthy, but all the detail is there. I never, for one moment, doubted that I was seeing the real world of Victorian London.
I can't enthuse in detail, because the plot contains several dramatic twists and it would be a shame to spoil it if you haven't already read the book. So you will just have to take my word that the characters are fully rounded and their idiosyncrasies make sense. The plot, like all convoluted Dickensian confections, sometimes twists a little too much for its own good. ‘Wouldn’t it have been simpler if they’d just …’ you find yourself saying. Sometimes the reason for the confusion becomes clear, sometimes not – but you keep turning the page and I was never disappointed as things unfolded.
If you like 19th-century historical novels, you are almost certain to love this. And if you have never tried this genre before, this will be a good starting point. (You can always read Back Home later.)