The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

Review copy from <a href:"http://www.mcclelland.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780771087882">McClelland & Stewart</a>

Review copy supplied by http://www.mcclelland.com

I have had a soft spot for the work of Sarah Waters for a number of years. She is an author who specializes in history and mystery — two characteristics that are relatively low on my normal reading priorities. On the other hand, “literary” tends to creep in fairly often as an adjective of her work, with some legitimacy I would say. To that I would add, from a purely selfish point of view, “enjoyable” and “escapist” — when I am in the right frame of mind, Waters is an author that I turn to with some confidence.

I’ve had a copy of The Little Stranger on the shelf for some months. Having enjoyed her two most recent works (Fingersmith and The Night Watch, both of which attracted Booker attention), I’d earmarked it for a read on the mini-vacation to Lake Louise that we had scheduled for this past week. Waters did not disappoint. The Little Stranger was a worthwhile holiday read — on the other hand, I am scratching my head about the Booker longlisting of this particular book.

For me, the “star” of The Little Stranger is Hundreds Hall, described by the book’s narrator in its opening:

I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fete: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to teas with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn….

I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain — like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

There were no trips inside, of course. The doors and French windows stood open, but each had a rope or ribbon tied across it; the lavatories set aisde for our use were the grooms’ and the gardeners’, in the stable block.

For those of us in the Old Dominions, there can be no better introduction. A manor house in implicit post-war decline; an early indication of class conflict that is undergoing change. We soon discover that the narrator, Dr. Faraday, has never lost touch with his memorieis of the Hall and, indeed, his involvement is about to increase. Thirty years later, he is called to the Hall when his partner is busy with an emergency case — he first notices its decline (“My heart began to sink almost the moment I let myself into the park”), but we can sense immediately that Hundreds Hall will soon become an obsession.

The publishers of The Little Stranger are marketing it as a ghost story and, on one level, that is completely realistic. It is also potentially a story of phantasms, the ability of people to mentally create their own hell. And it is equally possible that it may be a story of individuals who allow their obsession with a place and their place in that place to descend into an evil that defies description.

Hundreds Hall has three residents — Mrs Ayres, her son Roddie (both physically and mentally damaged from his RAF experience in the recent war) and spinster daughter Caroline. An adolescent servant, Betty, seems to be around when many of the “ghostly” incidents take place and may or may not be involved. Dr. Faraday ends up treating them all, but it is no spoiler to say that along the way he becomes every bit as damaged as his patients. The decline of the Hall looms over them all; for everyone but the doctor that decline will prove fatal.

Strange things begin to happen. Burn marks appear on walls and noises are heard — the prospect of a ghost (another daughter died in early childhood) is the most obvious explanation. Rod is the first to fall prey and Dr. Faraday packs him off to a clinic for the mentally disabled, but that doesn’t stop the strange happenings, indeed they escalate.

A reviewer could go on at length detailing those strange things but I am going to forego that. Waters is an effective storyteller and, while the narrative occasionally lags, she does keep the story going. What this reader — and those who have been debating this book on various forums — finds most interesting is asking the question “what really happened at Hundreds Hall”?

In her two most recent novels, Waters has constructed involved plots which she sums up in a very tidy “reveal” which makes logical sense at the end of the book. She doesn’t do that in The Little Stranger — I can only conclude that her ambiguity is deliberate and that readers should accept that and work with it. For me, that makes the book much more than your ordinary mystery.

If you can stretch your credulity to assume there really is a ghost, you get one set of circumstances. It infects every resident and Dr. Faraday and sends them all on a path of destruction. An interesting option.

Then again, maybe they all just believe in a ghost who doesn’t exist and the phantasm is the infection that sends them on a path to ruin. The result is an equally interesting story.

Or perhaps all those things are the result of deliberate or subconscious behavior by Caroline and/or Dr. Faraday or even the young Betty. There is no doubt that the most “literary” characterstic of the book is Waters’ masterful achievement of turning the doctor into someone whom most readers will truly despise as the novel unfolds. Probably the most fascinating option, if only because it is closest to reality.

Once I had finished the book, I found the most value in being able to hold all those possibilities (and some others) open and looking back at what I had read from each of those perspectives. Having said that, I do acknowledge that not all readers are comfortable with that approach — they would like a resolution and deciding which of the possibilities is the “real” one has much more appeal than keeping all the options open. Certainly there has been a lot of comment elsewhere (see the Man Booker forum thread on the book) to indicate that this is a worthwhile approach for many readers.

The Little Stranger fulfilled for me both the entertainment and escapist expectations that I brought to the book. Alas, I think the author became so involved in keeping all those options open that, for me at least, this is not a “Booker” book. It was an enjoyable diversion and I would not discourage anyone from reading the book, but it lacks the depth and insight that I expect in the year’s best novel.

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16 Responses to “The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters”

  1. Jonathan Birch Says:

    What a nice cover your copy has. I don’t like the UK version much. I’m also surprised to see a ghost story on the Booker longlist, but then again Sarah Waters has become something of a Booker regular, and is one of those authors who might end up getting the prize as a kind of “lifetime achievement award”. I found The Night Watch disappointing, so I’m not sure whether to bother with this one.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jonathan: I do think the North American cover is much better. If you didn’t like The Night Watch, I’d say wait on this one to see if it makes the shortlist. My prediction is that it won’t but I don’t have a very good record on Booker predictions.

  3. dovegreyreader Says:

    Kevin, I think the ending and Waters’ refusal to tie it all up neatly has all multiplied the interest and debate about this book considerably and after a mid-book sag I picked myself up, raced to the end and knew I’d read a good book. Far more ghosts than I think I spotted in one read too.
    I think the spotlight on that particular period of time, post-war austerity etc has really struck a chord here in the UK, (or it might just be with me) it’s all been glossed over until now I think but a few more books coming out recently that are focusing on it and perhaps there are new historical perspectives emerging, I’m not sure.
    Yale are publishing a book called Demobbed – Coming Home After World War Two by Alan Allport and I have my name on a copy and there have been a flurry of others too, Nella Last’s Peace, Stranger in the House etc
    But I have to say, in the light of other Booker reading I don’t think TLS is going to make the shortlist either.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    dgr: Your comment about post-war austerity certainly lands with me. In fact, one of the things I most wish that Waters had done was to spend more time on it. There is some reference to the looming Health Service and what that means — I think additional context of ration coupons, shortages and so on would have added depth to the story of the decline of the Ayrses. Then again, that may just be my bias for social commentary in fiction, as opposed to mysteries.

    While I haven’t read Wolf Hall yet, it seems to me that both that book and the Byatt are liable to rank higher with the jury than this one — and I can’t see all three going on to the shortlist. Given my record with Booker juries, that opinion probably means this book will definitely move on to the next round.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds a lot of fun, and the ambiguity I think in many ways is likely to make it a better ghost story (I’ve met people who claimed to have met ghosts, as have most of us I suspect, but it never sounds as clear cut as the average ghost story makes it), but it sounds to me like an intelligent entertainment.

    Which sounds a bit snobby, but hopefully you know what I mean. I enjoy books that are entertainments, not everything has to be aiming for deeper meaning after all, but the Booker probably should be.

    But, it does sound fun, and the description reminds me slightly of The Turning of the Screw which is no bad company, so I may look into it once the Bookers are over.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’d be very interested in your reaction to this one, Max. You read more mystery and speculative fiction than I do and this book is close to those genres. And I think you would be quite comfortable with Waters’ ambiguity.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve had my eye on Waters for a while, I’ll take a look when it hits paperback.

  8. Lija Says:

    Just snooping around some of your old posts here. Interesting how everyone has such strong opinions about the different covers!

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lija: By all means, keep snooping. And yes covers often do provoke a debate — it is interesting to see how different designers and editors take a different impression from a book. I’ve tried to find a UK vs. North American pattern and cannot. Sometimes the UK opts for the grittier or more optical cover, sometimes NA. More fodder for debate, of course. Do keep snooping.

  10. kim Says:

    i didn’t think it was ambiguous at all, and i believed it WAS all tied up neatly — breathtakingly so, really. i’ve been surprised at the comments here and at other sites and now i’m wondering if maybe i’m seeing things that aren’t really there (my own ghosts, perhaps), but i hate to put ‘em out there if i’ll be spoiling the book for anyone else.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kim: There have been a number of comments that do think the ending is not ambiguous. Interestingly, however, they opt for a number of different unambiguous endings — which would suggest to me that Waters has succeeded in giving readers a challenge, even if they do opt for one solution.

  12. Mrs.B. Says:

    I just read this and I loved it. In retrospect, I believe it’s better even than Fingersmith because it’s so brilliantly crafted. The ending also is ambiguous and I actually love that. You can think about it for a long time after and I think it might even be better and clearer after a reread. I don’t like all of Waters novels. I couldn’t get through the Night Watch.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I agree Mrs. B. I too liked Fingersmith, particularly because of the way that Waters resolved her story. But in the months since I read The Little Stranger I am even more impressed at the way that the author develops her ambiguous end in this novel. I am quite content to contemplate three or four different versions of what “really” happened — and, of course, a couple of those versions are not real at all.

  14. Tracey Dooley Says:

    I finished this right-riveting read last night — and duly slept (almost) with the light on!

    I myself feel ambiguous over the ending. Like most novels, it seems to rush to a conclusion. But, while I do enjoy a book that makes you think, I do prefer one that ties up all the loose ends, which Stranger doesn’t.

    For me, there are at least six possibilities as to what ‘really’ happened, one of which involves a fantastic turn on events, a twist of a plot — I think Waters missed a trick there.

    That said, what Waters does achieve by tossing by the wayside any semblance of a tidy ending is the fact that the uncertainty at the book’s close makes you mull over it long after you have finished reading it.

    I might just have to re-read it sometime… ;-)

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Tracey. As my review and comments indicate, I quite like the ambiguity of the ending, but can see where others would like a much tidier conclusion. I agree there are numerous possibilities and think it is a mistake to think that Waters didn’t deliberately intend that.

    If you haven’t read Fingersmith by Waters, I would recommend it — unlike this book it has a very definitive pulling together of the loose ends. (The way she succeeds there is part of the reason that I am convince the ambiguity in this book is intended.) It has all the strengths of Stranger, with a much different ending.

  16. Wandering Coyote Says:

    I really loved Fingersmith so I was excited to read this, and I quite enjoyed it, though I was kind of expecting something else. I didn’t mind the ambiguity at the end personally, though I can see why some people would be annoyed with it. What I most liked about this was how the house was a character in and of itself.

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