Riverhead, 2002 (2000)
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Reviewed by G. Hall
eaders looking for something out of the ordinary can turn to
, an engrossing and disturbing new novel by British author Sarah Waters. Set in Victorian London, it is the story of two young women, Margaret Prior and Selina Dawes. Margaret is the spinster daughter of an upper class family. Severely depressed after the death of her father and the loss of her special friend Helen who has '
' to marry her brother Stephen, Margaret attempts suicide. Once she has recovered she faces a life with few options. So she decides to undertake charity work and becomes a '
' at Millbank Prison.
t Millbank, Margaret encounters Selina Dawes, the mysterious and beautiful spiritualist who has been imprisoned after a client died during one of her seances. The sensitive and emotionally fragile Margaret is drawn to the strangely peaceful Selina and the two women discover an '
' between them. The Millbank visits become the center of Margaret's life, much more satisfying than her unfulfilling outside life in a house with a demanding mother and a frivolous younger sister busy with preparations for her wedding.
nterspersed with the present story, set in 1874, are flashbacks to the 1872-73 time period of Selina's life before she was imprisioned, shedding light on her spiritualist activities. This was a time when spiritualism was all the rage and educated people such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were believers. As the relationship between Margaret and Selina develops, Margaret starts investigating spiritualism and although reluctant at first, eventually becomes a believer, helped by signs from Selina. One of Margaret's dreams has always been to visit Italy, and she and Helen and her father had planned to do this before his death and Helen's subsequent marriage. Now it once again seems possible that she may achieve her dream. Margaret becomes '
' to Selina and they talk about a future together in warm and sunny Italy.
aters highlights the difficult lives led by women of all classes at this time. Well-educated women such as Margaret had few choices and many restrictions, while poorer women had even fewer choices. Worst of all were the lives of the women incarcerated at Millbank, some for relatively minor infractions such as being a
. In Victorian London '
men's voices carry so clearly while women's voices are so easily stifled
'. It is a wonder that more women did not go mad. When women do show signs of emotional turmoil as Margaret increasingly does under the influence of Selina, they are given drugs such as chloral hydrate and laudanum.
is an unnerving and enthralling story. The reader is compelled to keep turning the pages, even while dreading the outcome. Waters has created a very moving and sad portrait of a troubled young woman and one feels her pain. This book is highly recommended for anyone who desires a challenging and truly unusual read.
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