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Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

historical fiction, Riverhead Books, (hardback), 2002, 510 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

Many a joyful hour have I spent gamboling through TOM JONES or the convoluted plots of Charles Dickens, and it was with a kind of jaded sadness that I closed the pages on my final Dickens novel years ago. There have been a few stabs at recapturing the plot magic of the Victorians by contemporary novelists (John Fowles, Charles Palliser, Iain Pear come to mind), but none have succeeded with anywhere the fresh audacity that characterizes FINGERSMITH.

This novel, set in London and environs in the 1840s, traces the parallel paths of two young women, Sue Trinder and Maud Lilly.  Trinder is a serving girl in training at Mrs. Sucksby's thief's academy; Lilly is a highborn amanuensis for her rich and eccentric uncle.  Both exist in prisons not of their own making, both are haunted with dark shameful Victorian secrets, and
both scheme with all their might to change their fates.  Their fates do indeed change, but in ways they never could have imagined.

To reveal the labyrinthine plot would be the diabolical act of a literary fiend, but suffice to say, before the story's end, the dear reader is treated with a rich portrait of the London petty criminal underground, with a painstakingly-detailed depiction of the true intimacy between maid and mistress, with bone-chilling portraits of Victorian lunatic asylums and places of public execution, and with turns and twists of fate satisfying in their dizzying complexity.

FINGERSMITH is divided into three equal parts, the first and last in the voice of Sue Trinder, the middle in the voice of Maud Lilly.  One of the book's guilty pleasures is to go through the same cataclysms twice, from differing perspectives.  What the attentive reader thinks he knows, after Sue's introductory part, will be engagingly challenged, by Maud's very different account of the same events.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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