I had heard great things about Sarah Water’s “Affinity” and I was glad to finally get hold of it, though I was reading it practically after a decade since its original publication.
The book is set in Victorian England and traces events that take place between 1872 to 1875. Margaret Prior is a 29 year old woman, now designated as a spinster who is recovering from an “illness”. On chance of a suggestion of a family friend, Mr. Shillitoe, she undertakes to visit, Millbank Prison – Women’s Ward as a “lady visitor” in order to provide comfort and guidance to the inmates. Margaret initially finds the visits difficult and feels suffocated every time she enters the prison wall; however life at home is not happy. Her beloved father, a scholar with whom she used to work closely had died two years ago, putting an end to all her academic aspirations. On top of this came the marriage of her close friend Helen to her brother and Margaret suddenly finds she completely lonely and in a fit of depression attempted to commit suicide. She was rescued in time by her mother and since then has been constantly guarded and scolded into better humor; Margaret still feels lonely and sees her visits to Millbank as same way to create a semblance of rationality and sobriety. Soon she starts getting comfortable with the wardens and inmates of the prison and especially begins to feel a special interest in a prisoner named Selina Dawes. Margaret discovers that Selina Dawes was a spiritualist who acted as a medium and in one of séance, a girl was been assaulted, leading to Selina’s imprisonment under charges of fraud and assault. Selina initially rebuffs Margaret’s friendly overtures, but soon begins to talk to her on her violation. Margaret soon begins to find an “affinity” with Selina, and is soon led to believe in the world of spirits and mediums, as her life is filled with proof after proof, finally letting her realize that there is a higher purpose because of which events led her to Selina and she must help Selina escape from the Prison to fulfill that purpose.
The book had a lot of promise – a Victorian Era Prison Break with a dash of “ghosts” and “spiritualism”. But the promise did not hold. The first 100 pages of the book to begin with are enough to bore you to death! The plot does not grip you atleast until you reach page 151 or so and by then, you have lost all your patience with the main characters. What should have been a fast paced edgy writing drags on and on about the miserable conditions in the prison at that time until, you are confused if Dickens wondered into Conon Doyle land or vice-versa or what??!!! Nobody is discounting the fact that the prision system then and I would say even now is harsh and horrible place; but to keep drumming it into the readers brain for 100+ odd pages is really OTTing it, especially when the point could have been driven home in 20 odd pages in far more effective and crisp writing. Then come the characters of the book – Margaret Prior, I could have thrown a book at!! She is miserable sopping insipid creature alternately crying for her “Pa” and “Helen”. Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird!!! Naturally!!) tells us that not only must we wear another man’s shoe but walk a mile in it before we can pass a judgment. Well I know what it feels like being dumped and then losing a parent, but it is not the end of the world. I mean for a while it is but, then you get your bearings back and move on. But our dear Margaret Prior moans about the death of her Pa and Helen’s marriage, though both the events happened two years ago! I understand sensitivity and all that, but woman you are rich, have a loving family (at least some members are very loving!) and your whole life, but no….dark and miserable Ms. Prior shall be! I had no feelings left for her in the end except “Duh!!!” Selina Dawes is another confused creature, I will be happy with my spirits, I will not be happy with my spirits. Ye! Gods! Though I could not relate to Selina Dawes either, at least her character in the end showed some spunk, though I am not sure I agree with it at all!! The language is clichéd and hackneyed “heart in the mouth” “It would be terribly wrong” …I mean what???!!!! The restorative features are , one of course the historical detailing and accuracy of the 19th century prison system, though I think it was way to unnecessary to spend so much time in describing each and every aspect of the prison, especially considering some of the descriptions had absolutely no bearing on the main plot. The other second redeeming feature of the book was naturally the last few pages, as the picture came together, though once again as reader you felt, er….how did? When did?
In the end, I must admit that I am sorry to have spent a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon reading this dark and extremely dissatisfying novel. Now it’s up to the combined efforts of Jane Austen (Northanger Abbey) and Terry Pratchett (Feet of Clay) to revive my “spirits”, banish the headache brought as an aftereffect of reading this ‘work” and salvaging whatever remains of my Sunday!!