Book Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

by Sarah Waters

Publication date: June 26th 2012
Publisher: Virago (first published 1999)
Pages: 368


“Now you know why you are drawn to me – why your flesh comes creeping to mine, and what it comes for. Let it creep.”

From the dark heart of a Victorian prison, disgraced spiritualist Selina Dawes weaves an enigmatic spell. Is she a fraud, or a prodigy? By the time it all begins to matter, you’ll find yourself desperately wanting to believe in magic.

Set in and around the women’’s prison at Milbank in the 1870s, Affinity is an eerie and utterly compelling ghost story, a complex and intriguing literary mystery and a poignant love story with an unexpected twist in the tale.

Following the death of her father, Margaret Prior has decided to pursue some ‘good work’ with the lady criminals of one of London’s most notorious gaols. Surrounded by prisoners, murderers and common thieves, Margaret feels herself drawn to one of the prisons more unlikely inmates – the imprisoned spiritualist – Selina Dawes. Sympathetic to the plight of this innocent-seeming girl, Margaret sees herself dispensing guidance and perhaps friendship on her visits, little expecting to find herself dabbling in a twilight world of seances, shadows, unruly spirits and unseemly passions.

Source: Goodreads


I still find myself thinking about “The Paying Guests” almost a year after finishing it, so I know that Sarah Waters is an author I enjoy reading. “Affinity” was my next choice, a gothic psychological novel in which at first seemed miles away from my usual read.

It’s the 1870s, not a time period I know a lot about, yet Waters’ powerful description instantly transports you to Victorian London.

Margaret Prior has had a breakdown following her father’s death and an attempted suicide. She lives with a controlling mother and a sister she has become jealous of, her ex is now married to her brother. She’s broken. In order to try and move on, she’s encouraged into a role as a “lady visitor” at the local prison. She talks to the women prisoners, listens and learns. Each of the prisoners has a story and each of them feels real, from the descriptions of their appearance to the stories behind their crimes.

Margaret finds herself drawn towards one prisoner in particular, Selina Dawes, a spiritualist and medium, sentenced to 4 years for assaulting a client. The story is told from both Selina and Margaret’s points of view, a couple of years apart, with Margaret taking the majority of the narrative.

Waters paints a vivid picture of all of these women, she immerses you into each location without the need for lengthy description. You can see the grime on the prison walls and the tension around the family dinner table, you can picture the cuts on the women’s shaven heads and the splits down their overworked fingernails. My picture of each character is so clear I feel as though I have just watched them on screen.

For me, “Affinity” was a page turner. It took me a while to finish, but I think this was because I was gripped, paying so much attention to its detail. When it began to wrap up, I was disappointed to find that I wasn’t the biggest fan of the ending; it was unexpected, a little unfinished and such a twist that I don’t think anyone could have seen it coming. It certainly was clever and I appreciate that, I just had hoped it would end differently.

Overall rating: If I had seen a description of this book that described it as gothic, historial fiction, I’d never have picked it up. Learning it was paranormal would have put me off too, yet Waters’ style is something different and I read every word with care. Some parts didn’t sit quite right with me, dragging a little at times, but this was certainly an enjoyable read – it’s 4 stars for “Affinity”.

See my other reviews of books by Sarah Waters here:

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

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