Fingersmith By Sarah Waters, Riverhead, $ 15
Sarah Waters’s third book, Fingersmith, tells the story of a pair of seventeen year-old girls. But it is hardly a book for adolescents, for both its theme and treatment are extremely adult.
The beginning of the novel has resonances of Oliver Twist. Susan Trinder, the central character, is an orphan brought up by petty thieves, the “finger smiths”. But unlike Oliver’s, Susan’s surrogate parents are loving and caring. It is because of this that she agrees to join a gangster to con a rich girl.
Waters pulls off one climax after another to create a world whose parameters keep shifting. Mothers do not remain the same, neither do names or even identities. Maud Rivers, the girl whose maid Sue becomes, takes over the central section of the book, and the story that had been told through Sue’s eyes so far is now seen through Maud’s.
This use of perspective not only serves a narrative function by continuing the story from where the girls’ paths diverge to the point when they come together again, but also provides radically different takes on the same situation. At the same time, there is a completeness that the two visions lend to the story, as Sue’s practical awareness meets with Maud’s feverish imagination and silent despair. Despite the bond between them, both girls have their own ends to look out for — Sue her money and face-saving, and Maud her freedom — and how they mistakenly place these ends above their longing for each other.
Unusually for a modern book, Fingersmith is plot-centric. The storyline, though complex, is clearly worked out, so that the reader never loses the thread. The narrative is gripping, moving rapidly from the roughness and affection of Sue’s world to the sadism of Maud’s uncle and her sterile existence, the suffering at the madhouse, the horror of the murder and the final resolution. Layer after layer of discovery peels off, revealing greater fraud and closely hidden secrets, often with a Wilkie Collinsian ring to it.
The language changes from Sue to Maud, not only because Sue speaks in the past tense and Maud in the present. Sue, for instance, says, “I was, not to put too fine a point on it, properly funked,” and Maud reflects, “I give it (life) up easily, as burning wicks give up smoke, to tarnish the glass that guards them.”
The linking of the girls’ destinies right from their birth is supplemented by a series of patterns in the book, starting from its very title. Sue’s trade is of a finger smith’s, but the term also hints at Maud’s gloves, a symbol of her torture. The madhouse becomes a recurring motif; Maud spends her early years there, and Sue a few months of her adult life. The lie invented about Sue’s mother’s hanging comes prophetically true for Maud’s real mother. But the most effective means used to portray their emotional attachment is the contrast between perversion and love. Maud’s uncle deals in pornographic literature, subjecting his niece to its cataloguing and to reading it out to men. However, the sexual relationship between Maud and Sue becomes a thing of beauty.
Lesbianism in the book is treated very naturally, not as a political statement, though men are never seen in a favourable light — most of them turn out to be sadists, tricksters or hypocrites. Money, which triggers off the drama, becomes insignificant in the end, with the manipulators all dead. What remains is a love born out of suffering and realized through pain.