Daily Archives: August 13, 2011

‘The Little Stranger’ by Sarah Waters

2009, 499 p.

I was about to say that it’s a long time since I’ve read a ghost story.  Then I realized that I don’t think I ever have read a ghost story- not even Edgar Allan Poe.  (No- I lie.  I have read A Christmas Carol).  Nor, for that matter, could I think of a ghost movie that I’d seen other than spoofs.   Of course, it’s possible that I have both read and seen ghost stories but they were so utterly unmemorable that I’ve forgotten them completely, or perhaps I just absorbed the ghost story genre by osmosis.

[Errata: I just remembered that I’ve spent Saturday nights for the last few weeks watching ‘Marchlands’.  I don’t know quite how that slipped my mind]

But I have read gothic stories with a hint of the supernatural- think Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Wilkie Collins- great fat books with the big house, the confused first-person narrator, and things that go bump in the night.    The Little Stranger fits right into this genre.  It is a gentle, slow tale told by the local doctor, Dr Faraday, who becomes enmeshed in the distress of the local gentry Ayres family, whose house harbours a ghost. Their home,  Hundreds Hall is falling into disrepair with tangled gardens, vermin, leaking roofs and windows and the family- the vague, aristocratic Mrs Ayres, her son Roderick who has returned from the war with a leg injury and ‘nerves’, and the practical, plain daughter Caroline- cling futilely to a vanishing world of servants, farm labourers and estates.

I was perhaps a little disappointed by the plot, which promised much and kept me anticipating more.  Sarah Waters is a master at emulating but subtly subverting a literary genre, with her lesbian-themed Victorian pastiches in Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet and the brilliant Blitz-era The Night Watch which I very much enjoyed reading  earlier this year.  There’s no lesbianism in this book,  but as in all her other works she complicates what would otherwise be stock characters.   We don’t actually see much of the ghost in this story, but there are other ghosts as well: the ghosts of men who went to WWII and came back hollow; the ghosts of the British aristocracy in Labour-governed post war England; the ghosts of slowly decaying Georgian mansions and the ghosts of the marriage hopes of a diffident, insecure country doctor and the bluff, angular spinster daughter of the big house.

This is a long book and the tension mounts very slowly.  I found myself anticipating snuggling up in bed to read it and glad that I wasn’t reading it on my own.   I did feel a bit let down by the ending,  and yet I don’t know what ending would have satisfied me. I would have resented having everything tied up neatly, and was wary that the book not step over the line into melodrama on the one hand or gratuitous  terror on the other.

Waters’ balancing act in writing this story was mirrored in my own contradictory response to reading it.   I had that same feeling of wanting to read on but wanting to stop as well, when it seemed that it was becoming a bit too  spooky.  It was the sort of book that you wanted to gallop through, regretting at the same time that you were getting closer to the end.  It brought out the adolescent book-worm in me, wanting to read late into the night, knowing that you’ll regret it the next morning. It was rather nice to be taken back to that type of book, and that type of reading again.

Some reviews? Hilary Mantel liked it in the Guardian;   Dove Grey Reader was slowly won over by it, and Abigail Nussbaum was lukewarm.  If you’ve read it, you’ll enjoy John Crace’s Digested Read of it.

Read because: Sarah Waters is one of my favourite authors.

My rating: 9/10

Obtained from: La Trobe University Library