The Little Stranger was my first Sarah Waters novel. It is part ghost story, part historical fiction, and mostly social commentary (I can’t promise that there aren’t spoilers up ahead).
In post war Britain, we meet Dr. Faraday, a local general practitioner, as he is called to a case at Hundreds Hall. As he approaches we learn that he last visited as a young boy when his mother was a maid there. He has fond memories of his time there but quickly realizes that the glory has begun to fade. In the large and declining house lives Mrs. Ayres and her two children Roderick and Caroline. Roderick is now the head of the estate and Caroline tends to her mother’s health. The house is definitely of another time-it is large, the furnishings are grand, and the family is finding it difficult to maintain it’s splendor and run the estate in the current economy. When their normal doctor is unavailable, Dr. Faraday is asked to see a young servant named Betty who has been complaining of ailments. After some conversation it is evident that Betty is simply homesick though she is concerned about a mysterious feeling throughout the house. Let the ghostly happenings begin.
After this initial visit, Dr. Faraday, also a bachelor, begins to spend increasing amounts of time at Hundreds Hall sometimes for medical visits but mostly for personal reasons. The family comes to expect and welcome his visits and his company and things seem to be generally pleasant until a series of strange and inexplicable events begin to happen. Whether it is ghosts, paranormal activity or simply the creakings of a degenerating house, the answers (if there are any) are slowly woven amid Waters’ details.
The strongest idea in the book was that of social position. Dr. Farday was born into a family of working people where money was often in short supply. Faraday seems to resent his position even recounting an event at school where he was embarrassed by his parents even after they struggled to pay for his education. Even decades after his visits to Hundreds Hall as a young boy, Faraday still struggles with attempts to move to a higher social class. Even after establishing himself as a local physician he can never fully move. Socially he remains beneath his companions at Hundreds Hall. This is often painfully obvious to himself and the Ayres family. I think it means that cultural and social ideas die hard-that no matter how poor the Ayres’ have become they are still placed amid the good graces of their social class. The Ayres and their crumbling house represent a group of aristocrats that are disappearing during this time, yet they represent an age that refuses to leave quietly is quickly becoming out of date. As the class issues shift and people like Dr. Faraday are able to somewhat move their positions, what good are they as a separate and elite class. They just can’t seem to patch up the crumbling house and estate affairs but refuse to see that everyone is aware of their position, even going to great lengths to save face.
About half way through, I hit a wall and began to find it difficult to finish, I suppose I was having a hard time seeing the point. Waters does a wonderful job of building the suspense, not that the story is scary but there are lulls and then she builds the story exploring the characters’ motives and decisions. This exploration only happens through the eyes of Faraday and as the book moved on I wondered if I could really trust his motives, his actions, and his account of the story. Anyhow, I moved past my wall and finished and re-read the last chapter thinking: “Really!” (in a good way)
Some passages I marked
The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those 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, and malice, and frustration…
But the thing in her hand as not quite silent, after all. As she raised her cup to her ear she could hear, coming from it, a faint moist susurration-as if wet silk, or something fine like that, were being slowly and haltingly drawn through the tube. The sound, she realized with a shock, was that of a laboured breath, which kept catching and bubbling as if in a narrow, constricted heat throat. In an instant she was transported back, twenty-eight years…
She said families like ours, they had a-a responsibility, they had to set an example. She said, if we couldn’t do that, if we couldn’t be better and braver that ordinary people, then what was the point of us?
The Ayreses’ problem-don’t you think? is that they can’t, or won’t adapt. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve a lot of sympathy for them. But what;s left for an old family like that in England nowadays? Class-wise, they’ve all their chips. Nerve-wise, perhaps they’ve run their course.
The Little Stranger was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. I’ve read around the blogosphere that many folks enjoy Waters’ other novels and I can see why.