This review contains spoilers.
Like her later novel Fingersmith, Sarah Waters’ Affinity is formally an excellent copy of a classic Victorian novel, only with lesbians instead of straight people. Margaret Prior is an unmarried woman recovering from a suicidal depression. As part of her convalescence, she becomes a Lady Visitor at Millbank Prison, visiting female convicts, talking to them about their lives, and (in theory) guiding them to repentance and good behaviour.
One of these women is Selina Dawes, a spirit medium convicted of murder. As time wears on Margaret becomes ever more obsessed with Selina. Is she a guilty fraudster, an innocent victim, a real medium, or a combination of all three? And can she possibly share Margaret’s sexuality, which is part of what triggered her depression? The novel’s narrated through Margaret’s diary entries, making for a singularly claustrophobic account of her cloistered, unhappy existence, marked by the grief of her father’s death and her former lover’s marriage to her brother, by her mother’s overbearing nature and by the stone walls and inhumanity of Millbank.
On the face of it, this is a novel that should generate shedloads of potent ambiguity. Margaret’s slow decline into madness (complete with hefty doses of laudanum); our uncertainty as to whether the various oddnesses associated with Selina are magic or trickery; the ever-present awareness of repressed queerness; the epistolary format, with the questions that raises about the truth of the account we’re presented with – all of this feels like it should, or could, combine into something Gothically disturbing, a re-writing of the patriarchal literary tradition Waters is imitating, or pastiching.
But, unlike Fingersmith, Affinity never manages to ghost its own traditional plot structures. In particular, I’m bothered by its ending, which strongly implies that Margaret commits suicide because, in effect, she’s gay and cannot see a future that includes her. It’s not quite queer tragedy, because the three other lesbian characters presumably go on to have decent lives; in particular Selina and her girlfriend are triumphant. But neither is it a challenge to the patriarchal narrative that says LGBTQIA* people are doomed to death or isolation, a literal erasure.
There are better novels about women in prison: Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which I name-checked in my review of Fingersmith, is one. Affinity, unfortunately, feels like a very minor work; one which, just, fails of its promise.