Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters [review by Lori L. Lake]

By Sarah Waters
Riverhead Books of Penguin Putnam, Inc. 375 Hudson St., New York, N.Y. 10014
2000/$14.00/351 Pages/ISBN: 1573228737
A story with gothic atmosphere, AFFINITY is set in 1875 London. The narrator, Miss Margaret Prior, is an upper class woman on the verge of turning 30, and when we become acquainted with her, she is making her first visit to Millbank Prison. She is to be the Lady Visitor—someone who comes to visit and motivate the pathetic denizens locked up for everything from petty crimes and prostitution to murder. Very quickly she becomes compulsively interested in a young woman, Selina Dawes, a spiritualist and medium in jail for harming a young girl and for involvement in the death of her benefactress.
Miss Prior’s elaborate descriptions of Millbank, the incarcerated women, and her daily life at home soon reveal that she, too, is locked in her own private prison from which she has no way to escape. She’s already had one “nervous” episode nearly resulting in her death. This followed the betrayal of a woman with whom she was smitten and the death of her dearly beloved father. She is a woman locked in a world with social mores that do not allow her to be herself—nor even to know who her real Self is. Only Selina has managed to introduce a little magic into her life.
With each passing week, the story builds in intensity as Miss Prior visits the dismal Millbank and attempts to see Selina Dawes as often as possible. Though she fights it, little by little, she surrenders to her feelings for the other woman. Will Selina manage to escape and will Miss Prior assist? Is the young woman truly innocent and wrongly convicted? We get clues from periodic diary entries made by Selina, but the mystery of the spiritualist’s past is not revealed until the end.
AFFINITY has a feel much like the gothic novels of old, and the style and tone made me wonder if Waters could possibly be the spiritual daughter of Emily Brontë and Mary Shelley. The story’s impact quietly creeps up on the reader until the surprising denouement, which, though it seems to come out of the blue, I realized I should have seen coming. I found myself thinking of this novel and Miss Prior’s horrendous predicament for weeks. AFFINITY leaves a mark.
Lori L. Lake has been an author, editor, teacher, retreat leader, and creativity coach, and, until a few years ago, a book reviewer as well. She’s written a dozen novels, two short story collections, and edited four anthologies. Her work has won three Goldies, three Rainbow Awards, the Alice B Medal, and the Ann Bannon Award. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and is currently working on her next novel and a nonfiction writing book about creativity. Website: