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Brilliantly unpredictable Victorian thriller

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a long time, widely considered to be Waters’ best, and recommended to me by tons of people. In true Sarah Waters’ fashion, Fingersmith twists and turns in completely unpredictable ways, it’s creepy, it’s seedy, it’s spooky and it’s the best thriller I’ve read in a long time.

Sue Tinder, our narrator for most of the book, lives a rough life as an orphan in Victorian London. Her ‘family’ in Lant Street consists of her adoptive mum Mrs Sucksby, who runs an orphanage with babies ‘in cradles, like sprats in boxes of salt’ placed all around the house (silver spoons with gin are routinely administered to keep them quiet) and various shady characters who come and go.

‘We were all more or less thieves, at Lant Street’ explains Sue. There’s Mr Ibbs, who runs the pawn shop where all ‘the poke’ is sold, John Vroom, a ‘thin, dark, knifish boy’ who wears coats made of dog-skin and Richard Rivers aka ‘Gentleman’, a dapper charming man, and the biggest con artist of them all.

Gentleman hatches a plot to trick a wealthy heiress into marrying him. Sue is promised a part of the inheritance in return for infiltrating the heiress’ family as a maid. But things are not quite as straight forward as they seem and people are not necessarily who you think they are…

The trouble with Waters’ book is that I can’t tell you more without revealing the plot. The unpredictability makes it a hugely enjoyable rollercoaster of a read. Guessing what will happen is nigh impossible.

It all reeks of seedy Victorian London; you can practically smell the sewer, hear the rats and glimpse the pickpockets. Waters is the master of creating historical atmosphere and the Victorian era seems to be her absolute favourite. It’s spooky, at times reminiscent of Wilkie Collins, it’s steamily sexy, it’s got unimaginably cruelty, physical and emotional, criminal’s dangling from the gallows and torture. The story takes us to gothic country estates, to gruesome mad houses and even into the world of Victorian pornography. Knowing Waters’ meticulous research, it’s probably a pretty accurate reflection of what it was actually like. Absolutely gripping.

If there’s one criticism to be directed at this book, it will have to be its length. Although it has a fairly complicated plot with plenty of double-crossing and perception shifts, it could have been shorter than it’s 560 pages. Still, I think it’s a fabulous read.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is published by Virago, 560 pages.

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