In what was a departure for Sarah Waters after three (extremely popular) Victorian novels, this book is set during and around the time of WWII. It tells the story of four characters – Kay; a lonely woman, tired of life and love; Viv, a young beauty who is loyal to her Soldier lover, despite her reservations; Helen, Viv’s colleague who is harbouring troubling thoughts about her relationship; and Duncan, Viv’s younger brother who has been through some troubling times.
Sarah Waters employs an unusual plot device in splitting the book into three parts which move backwards chronologically. The first part is set in 1947, when England is recovering from war, and we watch the characters moving through their lives. The second part is set in 1944, at the height of WWII, and the first part is set in 1941. (However, each individual section moves forward and tells the events of a few weeks or months in the characters’ lives.) The second and third parts start to fill in the blanks in their lives so that we discover how they came to find themselves in the situations they are in at the beginning (or the end) of the novel.
Every character – even the peripheral ones – is described wonderfully so that the reader really feels that they have come to know these people. They are decent characters, but each with their very personal and believeable flaws. 1940s London is also portrayed very vividly and beautifully, with the ravaged city almost being a fifth main character.
I have always thought that Sarah Waters is a wonderful and very talented novelist – this book serves to confirm my opinion further. I found myself anxious to know how the story turned out, and it held my attention completely. Highly recommended.
Set in the 1870’s, Selina Dawes finds herself imprisoned at Millbank Prison. Selina is a medium who insists that a spirit committed the crimes for which she has been incarcerated. When Margaret Prior becomes a visitor at the prison, in a role which sees her befriend prisoners and try to offer support to them, she finds herself drawn to Selina, to an extent which seems beyond her control. As their bond gets tighter, events start to hurtle out of control…
Sarah Waters is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. The story drew me in slowly, but surely. The main narrator is Miss Prior, and the book is interspersed with short accounts of events leading up to the incident which led to Selina’s imprisonment; these parts are narrated by Selina herself. Miss Prior has herself suffered a great loss, and illness and depression are part of her recent past. As much as she helps Selina cope with prison life, Selina helps her to cope with her own life, living with her stifling mother.
The story unfolds beautifully at a pace slow pace, which nevertheless does not fail to hold the reader’s attention. The ending was a genuine surprise, and one which I could not have predicted – here I could not help but to feel what Miss Prior felt. It is was a pleasure to be genuinely shocked by a story’s conclusion.
As always, Sarah Waters captures the atmosphere and surroundings of 1870s London, and the setting is brought to life through her words. This book doesn’t have the Dickensian feel of Fingersmith, nor the bawdy sauciness of Tipping the Velvet (both of which books I thoroughly enjoyed), but is rather more subtle. It works beautifully and is further evidence to show what a talented writer Waters is. I found myself wanting to keep reading, as I was eager to know what would happen next.
I would recommend this book very highly – I don’t think you will be disapppinted!