Sometimes you finish a novel and get pissed off; sometimes you are sad to see it end; sometimes you feel cheated and sometimes you immediately miss the characters and wish to continue their story. Sarah Water’s Fingersmith—the first book by her I’ve read, although not the first she published—falls into the latter category.
Set in Victorian-era London, the novel tells the story of Sue Trinder, an orphan who is being raised by a woman named Mrs. Sucksby, who happens to run a “baby farm” (basically she takes in unwanted babies and then sells them to upperclass families who cannot conceive or who are looking for children to work as servants). Despite that ominous upraising, Mrs. Sucksby dotes on Sue and Sue considers her all the mother she would ever need. The two also live with a pack of thieves (aka “fingersmiths”) who help fund the household by selling random stolen goods.
One night one of the thieves, referred to as “Gentleman,” arrives with a proposition for Sue. He has discovered a young lady living in an isolated manor house in a small town outside London. She lives with and works for her uncle and is very sheltered—and she is due to inherit an enormous fortune once she marries. Gentleman wants Sue to apply to be her handmaiden, and then help him seduce the lady into marrying him. Once they are married and he’s collected her fortune, he plans to dump the lady in a madhouse, and will give a portion of the riches to Sue. Sue, wanting to give back to the woman and thieves who took her in as an orphan and raised her so kindly, agrees. And what seems like a fairly straightforward heist story sets off—to take many twists and turns and betrayals and lies.
The book is separated into several parts and I was so ensnared by the first that I could not read this fast enough. After that the book suffers a bit—the next two parts largely just detail the suffering of two of the characters and at times it felt very gratuitous. I did not, for example, need lengthy chapters spent in the madhouse to know that the patients there suffered greatly. It’s a Victorian-era madhouse, of course it was terrible! I also tire of books where every single character is evil. Everyone is backstabbing someone or holding terrible secrets. Every random person on the street wants to swindle or harm you. Every servant resents you and tries to hurt you whenever possible. Medical professionals want to abuse and perform experiments on you. This, again, is why it would have been better to narrow the focus and tighten the editing of the book a bit, because fewer characters would have meant less suspension of disbelief would be required that our main characters could be so unlucky as to only encounter people who want to do them harm.
That said, I absolutely fell in love with Sue’s character and was sad to see her story end by the time the book was over. I love her all the more for the fact that she’s not always a good person, but she’s brutally honest as a character and wears her heart on her sleeve and she’s tough as nails. And I was pulled in enough by this book that I’m interested to see more of Sarah Water’s works.
Side note: This book was recently turned into a movie in Japan called The Handmaiden, which I have not yet seen so I can’t attest to how closely it follows the book or not.