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[267] Fingersmith – Sarah Waters

” I suppose I really seemed mad, then; but it was only through the awfulness of having said nothing but the truth, and being thought to be deluded. ” [14; 416]

You know it’s a great book when you can’t seem to disclose even a snippet of the plot without it’s being a spoiler. Fingersmith is such a book. Set in Victorian England, 1862 to be exact, Fingersmith captures the teeming life that thrives underneath the various repressions of that era. The orphaned Susan Trinder is raised by Mrs. Sucksby, den mother to a family of thieves, or fingersmiths. Mr. Ibbs, the father figure, operates a shop that handles stolen goods from thieves.

We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street. But we were that kind of thief that rather eased the dodgy deed along, than did it. [1; 7]

…there was not much that was brought to our house that was not moved out of it again. There was only one thing, in fact, that had come and got struck—one thing that had somehow withstood the tremendous pull of that passage of poke—one thing that Mr. Ibbs and Mrs. Sucksby seemed never to think the price to. I mean of course, Me. [1; 11]

To repay their kindness, at the urging of one unscrupulous man, ironically named Gentleman, Sue jumps at the chance to make her fortune and gets involved in a scam to win an elderly bookish man’s fortune. The key to the scheme’s success is to encourage the old man’s niece, also an orphan, into a marriage. This is where the novel, which Sue Trinder and Maud Lilly take turn to narrate, splits into twisting paths, revealing long held secrets and hidden strife. The multiple subtexts, the chicanery, and plot twist completely turn the story on its head.

We were thinking of secrets. Real secrets, and snide. Too many to count. When I try now to sort out who knew what and who knew nothing, who knew everything and who was a fraud, I have to stop and give it up, it makes my head spin. [4; 110]

So though, as I have said, I was sorry for her. I was not quite sorry enough to want to try and save her. I never really thought of telling her the truth, of showing up Gentleman as the villain he was . . . [5; 136]

To complicate matter further, the two women fall in love with each other, if there is any truth coming out of the hoax, during the intricate dealings. Waters has downplayed the romance, focusing on the layers of secrets to be revealed carefully. The ingénue of Fingersmith lays in her execution, juxtaposing facts and events that would otherwise contribute to an ordinary tale of chicanery and betrayal.

And so you see it is love—not scorn, not malice; only love—that makes me harm her. [10; 285]

In Fingersmith, the approach to the truth is so convoluted that appearances in one case have pointed one way while the truth lay all the while unsuspected in another direction. On top of the entangled fate of the two orphaned women, Waters surrounds their lives with characters who are unforgettable—neither wholly good nor evil. Whether it is Mr. Ibbs’ dealing with pickpockets for the stolen goods, Mrs. Sucksby’s unlicensed nursing of orphaned infants, Sue’s being part of the scam to make her fortune, the intention is to amount some good. Their actions often display a mix of self-interest and surprising altruism. Good to the last page.

548 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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37 Responses

  1. I loved this book as well, and was sorry I waited so long to read it. I was never ever bored with this story.

  2. I’ve been hearing lots of great stuff about this book lately, and it’s made me realize that I really need to read some Sarah Waters. Everyone says that she writes a gripping and complex story, so I am going to keep her in mind for the next time I have a reading slump. I’m so glad to hear you liked her, because I know you’re not one to be taken in by the hype and will only praise a book if you really think it deserves it!

    • I feel the same way about you Steph. If you likes a book, I will seriously consider it and put it on my reading list. Fingersmith reads a bit like popular fiction, with the the gripping story. But consider how she does a good job in bringing to life the Victorian period in which the novel is set, it’s great literature.

  3. I’ve read nothing but great reviews on this book! I’ve a problem though, and I can’t decide if I should read this or The Night Watch first should I want to read a Waters book in the near future. 😛

  4. Oh you are so very right, my friend! The book gave me almost a feeling of euphoria while reading, and I didn’t want it to end. It was just delicious in its atmosphere, its characters, and its plot development. By far Waters’ best book.

    • It also gave me a tingle in my scalp every time when a twist takes place! I was holding my breath and slowing down my pace at several occasions. It’s just a very fulfilling book in terms of the story and the writing.

  5. I still have not read one of her books, I’m going to have to rectify that soon.

  6. How on earth when I have read a fair few of her books have I still not read this one? I must get a wriggle on and give this a go in the very near furture.

    • Read it! I was waiting with bated breath for Matt’s review because I was so excited he was reading it.

      It is so atmospheric, and as he says, the characters truly are unforgettable. It has so many moments that recall the best of the classics, yet it is wholly original. What a great read. I need to reread it.

    • Simon you have to rectify this situation soon. I asked myself the very same question. It’s been a couple years since I read The Night Watch. But this one will totally blow you away! 🙂

    • pickygirlfoodfilmfiction:
      I’m sure Fingersmith will make the pantheon of modern classics. Her characters are so etched that make you wonder why they do what they did.

  7. I’ve seen several reviews of this lately; so glad more people in the blogosphere are getting to read it! Sarah Waters writes beautifully in all her books, but Fingersmith unquestionably has the best plot. I need to reread.

  8. This is a lovely review. I have the book waiting for me on my bookshelf – so I will definitely need to read it soon! I’ve heard such good things.

  9. I am so glad you gave this book a go. It was unanimously adored when our book group read it a couple years ago…and as it was my pick I won Best Book that year! So much fun!

  10. “Good to the last page”…I couldn’t have said it any better. I found myself imagining even more twists as I worked my way through the versions and layers of the story.

  11. I have just finished Fingersmith, thanks to your book review. Liked it a lot…satisfying read. Would rate it much much higher than the Little Stranger though. Waiting for your review on Affinity to see if I would pick it up for a read!

  12. […] Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah […]

  13. […] Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah […]

  14. […] by Sarah Waters (which I also love desperately) got reviewed at Things Mean a Lot, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, and Books and […]

  15. […] Reviews: Books I Done Read, Farm Lane Books Blog, A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook, Jenny’s Books, My Fluttering Heart, Rhapsody in Books Weblog, S. Krishna’s Books, […]

  16. I was just wondering why in the book they bothered to put Sue in the madhouse and not Maud? Couldn’t they claim Maud’s half of the money cause she was married to Gentleman and Sue could claim the half she is supposed to get? Could someone clarify it for me… I’m confused! Thanks 🙂

    • I’m trying to clarify without giving away the story. It’s because whoever put Sue into the madhouse wanted to rid of her and claimed the entire amount. This has to do with Sue’s real identity.

  17. […] A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook […]

  18. […] Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah […]

  19. […] Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah […]

  20. […] Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah Waters 15. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo […]

  21. […] Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah Waters 15. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo […]

  22. […] Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah Waters 15. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo […]

  23. […] Beloved, Toni Morrison 12. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf 13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck 14. Fingersmith, Sarah Waters 15. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo […]

  24. One of my favorite books ever. What astounds me is that I recently read her first novel [I’ve now read them all], Tipping The Velvet, and when I wrote a review, just days ago, I said the very same thing as you did here — the best books are the hardest to write about, because you can give away too much of the plot with your own words. That’s how I felt about ALL of Sarah Waters’s books.
    This one, Fingersmith, is very much that way. It is so twisty — if you say too much in a review, you can really ruin it for someone else.
    Cheers!

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