Imagine a university-educated lesbian Charles Dickens with a similarly keen eye for mendacity and melodrama, and you’ll have some idea of the pleasures lurking in Waters’s impudent revisionist historicals: Tipping the Velvet (1999), Affinity (2000), and now this richly woven tale of duplicity, passion, and lots of other good stuff.
It begins as the narrative of 17-year-old Susan Trinder, an orphan resident of the criminal domicile run by Hogarthian Grace Sucksby, a Fagin-like “farmer” of discarded infants and den-mother to an extended family of “fingersmiths” (i.e., pickpockets) and assorted confidence-persons. One of the latter, Richard Rivers (a.k.a. “Gentleman”), engages Susan in an elaborate plot to fleece wealthy old Mr. Lilly, a connoisseur of rare books—as lady’s maid “Susan Smith” to Lilly’s niece and ward Maude, a “simple, natural” innocent who will be married off to “Mr. Rivers,” then disposed of in a madhouse, while the conspirators share her wealth. Maidservant and mistress grow unexpectedly close, until Gentleman’s real plan—a surprise no reader will see coming—leads to a retelling of events we’ve just witnessed, from a second viewpoint—which reveals the truth about Mr. Lilly’s bibliomania, and discloses to a second heroine that “Your life was not the life that you were meant to live.” (Misdirections and reversals are essential components of Waters’s brilliant plot, which must not be given away.) Further intrigues, escapes, and revelations climax when Susan (who has resumed her place as narrator) returns from her bizarre ordeal to Mrs. Sucksby’s welcoming den of iniquity, and a final twist of the knife precipitates another crime and its punishment, astonishing discoveries about both Maude and Susan (among others), and a muted reconciliation scene that ingeniously reshapes the conclusion of Dickens’s Great Expectations.
Nobody writing today surpasses the precocious Waters’s virtuosic handling of narrative complexity and thickly textured period detail. This is a marvelous novel.