THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters

Book Quote:

“Is that so surprising, with things for that family so bleak? The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of these corners. Let’s call it a – a germ. And let’s say conditions prove right for that germ to develop – to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this ‘little stranger’ grow into? A sort of shadow self, perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr. Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, malice, and frustration….”

Book Review:

Review by Jana L. Perskie (DEC 19, 2009)

With The Little Stranger author Sarah Waters departs from the settings, characters and style of her first three historical novels, Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, and Fingersmith, all set in Victorian England. Nor is this book like her more recent The Night Watch, a sensitive and passionate love story set in wartime England. The Little Stranger is a sinister, Hitchcockian-like tale of a haunted house, ghosts and madness. It provides a most chilling, unputdownable read.

It was the summer of 1919, almost a year after the end of World War I, when the boy, (Faraday, our narrator), first saw Hundreds Hall, the Ayres’ family estate in Warwickshire, England. His mother used to work at the Hall as a servant. The event that brought him there was an “Empire Day fete.” He and other local children made the Boy Scout salute, received commemorative medals and had tea. Although no one was allowed inside the main house, an impressive building of the Georgian period, his mother still had connections with the servants, so mother and son quietly entered by a side door. The boy was awed by all he saw. Such riches! To him this was a magnificent mansion, owned for generations by people way above his social class. Years later, he was to remember the building’s elegantly aging beauty, the “worn red brick, the cockled windows, the weathered sandstone edgings,” and the extraordinary gardens, the like of which he had never seen or experienced outside of churches. He was thrilled by the polished wooden floors, “the patina on the wooden chairs and cabinets, the bevel of a looking glass, the scroll of frame.” Hundreds Hall is to play as big a role in this novel as any living character.

Young Faraday was an obedient boy, however he suddenly did something totally out of character. He was fascinated by one of the white walls “which had a decorative plaster border – a representation of acorns and leaves.” He took out his pocket knife and pried one of the acorns loose. It really wasn’t an act of vandalism, although others might think so. He merely wanted to possess a piece of such grandeur.

The Ayres family was, by no means, part of the blue-blooded nobility….just moneyed country squires, to the manor bred. At this time, Mrs. Ayres was in her early twenties and quite lovely. Her husband was just a few years older. The couple had a little girl, six year-old Susan, upon whom they doted. Their happiness was not to last.

Post WWII England was a time of great economic and social change. Clement Richard Attlee, a British Labour Party politician, had been in office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for just about one year – not long enough yet to impact the country’s flailing economy – the UK’s most significant problem at the time. The war effort had left Britain nearly bankrupt. WWII had cost the country about a quarter of its national wealth. This meant that strict rationing of food and other essential goods were continued in the post war period. Many families of the nobility and upper classes found themselves with their fortunes greatly diminished by two world wars, and, unable to afford all the servants it took to maintain their estates, rooms were closed off. Mansions crumbled. As the middle class grew, the opulent lifestyles of the rich and famous decreased. Hundreds Hall, and its gradual decline, seem to parallel the country’s reduced circumstances. An entire British way of life that had lasted for centuries was dying.

Almost thirty years after that first visit, the boy, now a country doctor and a very lonely, disappointed man, returns to Hundreds Hall. He is called to the mansion by members of the Ayres family to treat a sick maid. Dr. Faraday is struck dumb as he drives up to the house. His memory of its former grandeur clash with the reality of its present degeneration, which horrifies him. The mansion and grounds have been left to rot and molder, the once beautiful gardens are unkempt and filled with weeds and dried ivy. The family is selling off enormous land holdings in order to keep their home. They subsist on the meager income of the remaining dairy farm.

The family has changed as significantly as their mansion, and are, perhaps, in even worse condition. The husband/father died at a relatively young age, and the beloved Susan died of diphtheria while still a child. Mrs. Ayres has never gotten over her terrible grief at the loss of her daughter – her “one true love.” It is unclear if she is even capable of loving her other children, born after Susan’s death. The Ayres son, Roderick, has been left mentally and physically damaged by the war. Caroline, the plain and eccentric daughter, with her stocky build and hairy legs, seems to be the most mentally stable person in the family. She has long accepted the fact that she will remain a spinster….for who would marry a plain, penniless woman?

There is something oddly unnatural about Hundreds Hall. Faraday first hears of the haunting when he initially visits to treat the maid. She complains that this “isn’t like a proper house at all. Its too big and so quiet it gives you the creeps.” There is something malevolent within – furniture moves, strange stains appear on the walls, footsteps can be heard coming from the deserted rooms on the top floor, doorknobs turn but when the door is opened, no one is there. Whispers are heard from unknown sources and the eerie events become truly frightening when some family members are physically hurt. There is a mysterious fire in Rodrick’s room which almost kills him. The gentle family dog uncharacteristically bites a young girl and has to be put down. Mrs. Ayres, who spends most of the time dreaming of past glories, shows signs of marks and scratches on her body. The external haunting and the family’s internal turmoil seem to merge as the tension continues to build throughout the storyline.

After treating his patient, Faraday is invited to tea, and despite the differences in classes he becomes a close friend of the family which seems to depend on him – his kindness, practicality and stability. Local physicians were never treated as social equals by landed gentry like the Ayreses before the war. The doctor is thrilled by his new upper class connections, especially as he in unable to forget his own humble beginnings, nor how his shopkeeper father and servant mother sacrificed to send him to medical school.

The author spends more than the first 100 pages setting the gothic scenario with the haunted house as the center of activity. Faraday, ever the scientist, refuses to accept any supernatural explanation for the events at Hundreds Hall. A colleague tells him, “that the cause might be “some dark germ, some ravenous, shadow-creature, some ‘little stranger,’ spawned from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house itself.”

Scary as the book may be at times, this is much more than a ghost story or historical thriller. There are many different threads woven into this tale. Ms. Waters’ characters come to life on the page, along with their conflicting emotions about their situations and the changing times. Faraday is a superb narrator, although not totally reliable, (obvious to the reader), due to his lack of confidence about class differences. Contradictorily, he has a strong sense of confidence about his education and abilities as a doctor. He also lacks objectivity because of his conflicting feelings about each of the Ayres family members.

This is a most original take on the genre, although a bit too long. The writing could have been tighter at times. Kudos to Sarah Waters, who never disappoints, (at least she never disappoints me)! I highly recommend this book, especially to fans of Alfred Hitchcock – rather than those of Stephen King. Although King fans, like me, might like The Little Stranger too.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 116 readers
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Hardcover; First Edition edition (April 30, 2009)
REVIEWER: Jana L. Perskie
AMAZON PAGE: The Little Stranger
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Sarah Waters
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of Fingersmith

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December 19, 2009 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , ,  В· Posted in: Class - Race - Gender, Facing History, Horror, Man Booker Nominee, Speculative (Beyond Reality), United Kingdom, y Award Winning Author

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