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Thursday, 10 October, 2002, 11:11 GMT 12:11 UK
Fingersmith tickles the palate
Sarah Waters
All three of Waters' novels are set in Victorian London

Queen Victoria, while accepting homosexuality in men, is said not to have been able to believe lesbians existed.

Sarah Waters sets out once again to prove Her Majesty wrong in her latest novel, Fingersmith, set - as her other two novels, Tipping the Velvet and Affinity - in Victorian London.

Fingersmith is the story of two young women who fall in love while plotting their share of an old man's fortune.

This is hardly niche writing - or even erotic fiction, although the few love scenes are tenderly drawn.

It is instead a tremendous read that draws the reader swiftly into the teeming life that thrived underneath the various repressions of the Victorian era.

Self-interest

There are plenty of nods to Dickens - the pickpockets' den, the young woman locked away at an isolated mansion. But there is little of Dickens' sentimentality.

No-one in Waters' world is wholly good or evil, instead displaying a mix of open self-interest and surprising altruism.

The jovial father figure Mr Ibbs is the sharpest fence this side of the river; while the kindly Mrs Sucksby, who brings up orphans, is not a foster mother but running a profitable baby farm.

The two women who take turns to tell the story are Sue and Maud.

Sue, the "fingersmith" or pickpocket, grabs at the chance to make her fortune by encouraging another young woman into marriage and then into a lunatic asylum.

Her target is Maud, who, far from delicate victim, indulges in petty cruelties of her own and has been brought up to help write her uncle's bibliography of published porn.

Underbelly

The energy of the characters and their setting combines with a straightforward narrative to drive the action at a very healthy pace, with a highly creative plot that twists like a viper.

The basis of the plot, once all its secrets are revealed, may be a familiar one, but it is drawn with mastery.

But Waters never goes too fast to neglect careful characterisation or mood, deftly setting the scene or painting an emotion.

She methodically recreates the underbelly of Victorian life, from the thieves' bolthole in Borough, the grime of the London streets, and the almost comic cruelty of the asylums to the life of a young woman kept a virtual prisoner by her book-obsessed uncle.

A particular delight is the villainous Gentleman.

His character is drawn with relish, stopping short of turning into pantomime thanks to devilish charm, wit and a swaggering, sexy, Mr-Darcy-gone-bad attitude.

The sensuous, tongue-in-cheek prose forms part of the general rumbustiousness.

From the minute a six-year-old Sue is taken to see a stage production of Oliver Twist and sees her friend Flora "putting a hand to a tear in her skirt and bringing out a purse and perfume", the (understated) symbolism does not stop.

Waters is currently on a roll - Tipping the Velvet is already being serialised by BBC Two and has been described as a lesbian Moll Flanders, while Fingersmith was also nominated for this year's Orange Prize for Fiction.

If this is what the Booker judges mean when they say they want to reward more populist works, all power to them.

Coverage of the 2002 Booker Prize from BBC News Online and BBCi Arts


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11 Jun 02 | Wales
10 Oct 02 | Entertainment
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