Archive for the ‘Waters, Sarah’ Category

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

August 11, 2009

Review copy from <a href:"">McClelland & Stewart</a>

Review copy supplied by

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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