This novel, for me all pastiche, pasteboard and mirrors, really irritated me principally because I could have read two good novels in the time it took me to wade through it.
For a start it’s way too long. It’s not like Waters is serving up any profound insights into human nature or casting her eye over a wide panorama of human life. It’s essentially a novel that traffics in pastiche (plagiarism?) and is built on two startling plot twists (and as such tailor made for the screen). Waters overwrites every single scene, always telling us far too much, always throwing yet more wood on the fire which has the effect of continually tipping the emotional register close to melodrama. Whenever a character is in the grip of an emotion it’s like an entire orchestra strikes up operatic music. The dialogue is often ham Victorian slapstick (even the BBC couldn’t rectify this). She also endlessly repeats herself. Doesn’t help that to enable the plot twist she has to write the entire first part again from another perspective. This is often the problem with plot twists – they stifle all the blood out of the characters, they reduce characters to devices. The plot of this novel straitjackets all the characters. The men are pantomime villains. They have no inner life. Are simply wheeled on and off stage when required. The women aren’t much better. They have to do what the plot requires them to do. There’s never a sense that their natural feeling is creating the plot.
Suspension of disbelief is impossible. So much in this novel is preposterous that it’s as far-fetched as Harry Potter except this isn’t a fantasy novel.
It quotes or pastiches most of popular Victorian literature. Most notably The Woman in White. But also, of course, Dickens and George Eliot (Casaubon, the ogre of the library, is here compiling an inventory of pornographic literature).