Monday, July 21, 2008
In the autumn of 1874, Margaret Prior, an upper-class 29-year-old "spinster," begins visiting Millbank Prison for women as part of her program for re-associating with the world after a long illness that kept her bound to her house. Over the course of her visits, Margaret observes the austere and unforgiving prison conditions and the way they affect a number of matrons and prisoners. She is especially drawn to one prisoner, a 19-year-old girl named Selina Dawes, a former spiritual medium who is in prison for a little-understood ghostly attack on a young girl.
For an almost action-free story that takes place largely in a grim, gray prison ward, this is a real page-turner. The historical recreation is really impeccable--Waters has a real gift for compelling and highly readable period detail. I found Margaret, who narrates the book through her diary, not a particularly likable person. But the story and world are so carefully crafted that you can't really give up on her no matter how insufferable she gets.