Original Publication Year: 2002
Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Awards: Nominated for a number of awards including the 2002Man Booker and Orange Prize and won the Crime Writer’s Association Ellis Peter’sHistorical Award (2002).
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrated by: Juanita McMahon
The description of the book on goodreads starts; “No one and nothing is as it seems in this Dickensian novel of thrills and reversals…” which is a very good place to begin. The story takes place in Victorian era England and tells the twisting tale of two young women; Sue who is raised in the household of an infant farmer and fencer of stolen goods while Maud spent her childhood in a mad house and then under the thumb of her wicked uncle. Sue is recruited to pose as Maud’s lady’s maid in order to help with a plot to steal Maud’s fortune. However as the two girls get to know one another Sue begins to question her ability to betray Maud.
This book is full of twist and turns, so it is difficult to talk about without giving too much away. I did not at all suspect what I got. I had somehow formed the impression that this would be your typical “impoverished, immoral girl is redeemed through the power of love and friendship” type story, which sounds insipid, but it’s a trope I like and with all the love out there for this book I figured Sarah Waters had written it with extraordinary skill and historic accuracy.
Waters’ skill and uniqueness of voice is undeniable but she was not at all writing the story I was expecting. I think for most people this will be a breath of fresh air and extremely satisfying. For me it ended being a little disappointing because not only was it surprising, it was also incredibly dark. The characters in the book all represent the very worst of human nature even, for the most part, the two main characters. Sure they are the least rotten fruit in the bowl but that isn’t saying much.
The world being portrayed is the seediest of seedy underbellies of Victorian England. Infant Farms, pornographic literature, dismal cheerless manor houses, mad houses and London slums.
The plot is brilliantly devious and was frequently jaw-droppingly surprising. There are many mysteries to be solved and I can see that for most readers this book would likely be a huge page turner.
So why did it not work this way for me? My own fault really. I was just not in the mood for the amount of gritty darkness this book contains. It is all written masterfully with a detail that brings it to full life but unfortunately I was needing rainbows and puppies. I was needing/wanting the story I thought this was going to be. Sue and Maud’s relationship, which should have been the one bright spot at the heart of the book really didn’t work for me either. We first get to know Maud through Sue’s eyes and I can’t imagine a more unattractive person – she’s awkward, weird, moody and cold. So I was more perplexed and surprised by Sue falling in love with Maud than I was pleased. They do end up making a good pair I think but based on initial impressions, it did not work for me.
Three final nits: One thing that I don’t think was clear was the whole crux of the scam. Much of the book is leading up to the moment when this is revealed and then when it was, it left me muddled and seemed unconvincing. It’s a nitpick as I don’t think that really detracted from the overall story and was likely just me being dense but if someone understands the legal machinations that made two claims possible, I’d like to hear it! The second issue I had was that I thought it was a little long and dragged in places. The building of suspense and getting to know Sue and Maud intimately was important to making the twist and turns work, but nevertheless I do think it could have been tightened up. Finally, a narrative device was used that I just really don’t like. At a certain point in the story the reader knows something that the main character does not. The lack of knowing this “something” means the character acts in a foolish and naïve way. This always just makes me irritated with the character as I can’t seem to put myself in their unknowing shoes. This could just be me though – does anybody else really like this device and think it works well for them?
The audio version of the book was fine. Juanita McMahon has a very pleasant voice and handled the cultured and the cockney accents equally well. I think her voice for Maud may have actually added to my negative view of her in the beginning – it is very soft and monotone - but she was voicing the character in a way consistent with the narrative. Maud’s uncle does not like loud discordant noises and so she is trained to speak in the most soothing tone possible.
FINAL VERDICT: In the end I am giving the book 4 stars because I can objectively recognize what a brilliant historical mystery it is and that my somewhat lackluster enjoyment of it was simply mood related. If you’re prepared to enter a bleak and very sordid world than I think most readers will really enjoy it. 4 out of 5 stars.
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