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[292] Affinity – Sarah Waters

” How will a person know, Selina, when the soul that has the affinity with hers is near it? . . . She will know. Does she look for air, before she breathes it? This love will be guided to her; and when it comes, she will know. And she will do anything to keep that love about her then. Because to lose it will be like a death to her. ” [211]

In Victorian England, on the heels of her recovery from a suicide attempt, Margaret Prior, an upper-class young lady, engages in visiting the women’s prison at Millbank as a gesture of her rehabilitation. Naturally an unhappy person who wants to find love, the passing of her father, a Renaissance art scholar whom she adores, hits her even harder. Struggling with her lack of power living at home with her society conforming mother, Margaret contrives to reach out.

It is as if every poet who ever wrote a lone to his own love wrote secretly for me, and for Selina. My blood—even as I write this—my blood, my muscle and every fibre of me, is listening, for her. When I sleep, it is to dream of her. When shadows move across my eye, I know them now for shadows of her. [304]

At Millbank, of all the friendships she has cultivated, Margaret is drawn to one Selina Dawes, a spirit medium who has been convicted of fraud and assault following a seance that ended with her mentor dead and a young woman traumatized. The morose Dawes, whose spiritual gifts Margaret initially doubts, quickly gains affection in the visitor’s heart. She is at last driven to concoct a desperate plot to secure Selina’s freedom—to a hugely surprising result.

We are the same, you and I. We have seen cut, two halves, from the same piece of shining matter. Oh, I could say, I love you—that is a simple thing to say . . . But my spirit does not love yours—it is entwined with it. Our flesh does not love: our flesh is the same . . . [275]

The narrative alternates between that of Margaret and Selina, the former being more thoughtful and psychological, the latter action-oriented, recounting the long and short of the medium’s sittings. The main story focuses on Margaret’s research as she seeks to uncover the mystery of Selina’s past. The novel is more haunting than creepy, establishing ambivalence over the notions of ghosts vs. madness. Affinity fine-tunes the exploration of psychological control, of emotional possession, and of the power of relationships. Although an absorbing book, the unexpected twist is less stunning than those of Fingersmith, and the atmosphere less creepy than The Little Stranger except for the one memorable passage on moving waxen finger.

351 pp. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]