Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters


I had heard this was really scary but it isn’t. It is dark and creepy in places but never so much so that I had to stop reading, and I am easily frightened. Instead it’s the story of living ghosts—characters who have outlived their era and who are so unable to adjust to their new reality that they might as well be dead.

In 1950’s Britain the Ayres family (mother, grown daughter Caroline and grown son Roderick) cling to their aristocratic ways in their crumbling mansion Hundreds Hall while all around them the world moves on. Woefully unprepared to make ends meet in the post-war society they muddle along on some meager farm income while Hundreds Hall literally falls apart over their heads. Roderick tries (with little know-how and even less success) to better their financial situation while mother and daughter try to “make do and mend” but nothing really helps. Their decline is chronicled by their friend Dr. Faraday, a new kind of Briton who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Class issues are front and center in this story.

As if the family doesn’t have enough problems, Roderick begins to believe he is being haunted. Strange dreams, unexplainable pranks, and mysterious fires dog him. Without giving too much away, the troubles get worse and eventually both mother and daughter also come to believe they are being haunted, possibly by the ghost of the long-dead child Susan, older sister to Roderick and Caroline.

Faraday is something of an unreliable narrator. His first person observations are clouded by his growing affection for Caroline, his deep feelings of inadequacy, and his lack of an imagination. By placing Faraday as a buffer between the readers and the action Waters dilutes the scarier aspects of the story; everything we read is filtered through Faraday’s unbelieving eyes. I can’t decide if this is good or bad. On the one hand I was glad the story didn’t veer into Stephen King territory. On the other hand, having to navigate through Faraday’s skepticism and platitudes was sometimes a suspense killer.

ETA: Sarah Laurence has an interesting post about this book, along with an interview with Sarah Waters.

(Book 16, 2010)

12 comments:

Kathleen Jones said...

I felt similarly ambiguous towards this book too - read it just after it came out. I didn't like it as much as Sarah Waters' other books, but the way she creates Faraday as a character and makes such an unlikeable person the object of the readers' sympathy is, I think, brilliant.
Just found your blog, which I really like.

Ruthiella said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ruthiella said...

I had to put this book down a few times. Not so much because it was scary, although it did make me a bit jumpy, but because of the overwhelming sense of doom, supernatural or otherwise. This was the first book by Sarah Waters that I have read and I would definitely be interested in reading more.

Becky Holmes said...

Kathleen, I didn't think this was nearly as good as The Night Watch. Glad you like the blog.

Becky Holmes said...

Ruthiella, I had a hard time getting started with this book, so keep trying. But The Night Watch is better, and also Fingersmith. I think both of these are less diffuse than The Little Stranger, more directed, if you know what I mean.

Sarah Laurence said...

Becky, what a fun coincidence to review the same book this week! You raised some interesting points about the narrator. I was more interested in societal shifts than in paranormal phenomena so I think he worked well as a narrator. Thanks for the link.

Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

The social changes (the description of what makes a good maid), descriptions of the interior of the house and quirky references (their stable clock is set at Miss Havisham's time) made it an engrossing read for much of the book. And there were a number of unfamiliar words which I enjoyed discovering. But I was ultimately disappointed with the paranormal aspects of the story, which I thought were the weakest aspects. Thanks for the note about Sarah Lawrence; I'll check out her review, too.

Citizen Reader said...

Oh, I so wanted to like this book (Great Britain: good, class issues: better, hauntings: best) but I just thought it was so BORING. It also suffered from what I call MNS (Modern Novel Syndrome); it needed a good editor and was at least 150 pages too long.

But based on your suggestions I'll try some of Waters's other books. I didn't have a problem with the writing, just with slogging through many hundreds of pages without ever getting any real payoff.

kelly said...

I know there has been mixed reviews on this book, but I still would like to read it. I just purchased it the other day.

amanda said...

Love this blog! Going to enjoy reading through your old posts!

Barbara C. said...

I read (and listened) to this book about a year ago. I also thought it would be more of a ghost story and was left wondering if there was something I was missing. Can "it was all in their minds" be that strong a force. I did not like Mr. Faraday though, remember that much.

Sheri said...

I wish I would liked this book as much as I wanted to. Sadly, the best thing about this book to me was where I got it - Shakesphere & Co. in Paris. The bookstore greatly lived up to its hype, but the book did not.

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