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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]