Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger is only the second Sarah Waters book I've read, the first being Fingersmith, which I thought was fantastic. I enjoyed this too, I just don't think it quite lived up to Fingersmith. This book is set in England just after WWII, and focuses very much on the changing attitudes of the English people towards class and society, with the advent of the new Labour government.

The Ayres family, consisting of Mrs Ayres and Roderick and Caroline, her two unmarried adult children live at Hundreds Hall, a crumbling, dilapidated country house that has definitely seen better days. In fact those better days are described in the first chapter by a small boy attending a function at the house with his nursemaid mother. When the book moves to the post-war period, this same boy is a doctor (Dr Faraday), and is called out to the house in an official capacity. Although he is originally called out to treat the parlourmaid, he soon ingratiates himself with the family, particularly Caroline although it is Roderick he ends up treating, for war injuries. However, during a party, the family dog attacks a small child, and from that point on, the family all report strange goings on at the house, that at first glance appear supernatural although this is never confirmed. At first these events are put down to mental issues, easy because the first person they manifest themselves on is Roderick, who already has a 'nervous problem' from the war, but each as each family member in turn becomes unable to explain what is happening to them, they become more and more convinced it is supernatural.

Dr Faraday acts as the voice of reason throughout this book, and each time a new occurrence is described to him, he manages to provide a reasonable, rational argument for it. At first he is sympathetic, but as the novel progresses he becomes more and more didactic and inconsiderate. Dr Faraday actually becomes quite an unlikeable character. He starts as a man who seems to have worked hard to get where he is, under difficult circumstances, and seems to be helpful towards a family fallen on hard times, but he morphs into a single-minded, selfish and close minded man. He embarks on a relationship with Caroline, which at first seems genuine, but again as the novel progresses, seems to be for ulterior motives and actually shows a pretty grim side of his character.

I read a library copy of this, and the book is classified as a ghost story, although there is never definitively a ghost in the story. There is definitely a suggestion of supernatural activity and the occupants of Hundreds Hall all, in their turn, come to believe in the presence of a ghostly presence in their house. In fact, the latter part of the novel seems to talk of the house itself as a character, its the house itself producing the delusions (if that's what they are). That 'If', is the crux of this story. Even after 500 pages, it is left very ambiguous at the end as to what actually happened at Hundreds Hall. Dr Faraday's conversations and musings seem to imply that it is family delusions, from a family who are struggling to come to terms with the changing class structures of England. But there are elements that even a rational mind would find difficult to explain, apart from Dr Faraday, but his actions in the latter stages of the book make him a very unreliable narrator anyway. And this is all narrated by him so what exactly are we supposed to believe? I could go on and on with the questions I was left with, but I'll leave it that.

As to whether I liked this book, the answer would be yes. I was gripped and wanted to know what would happen. As I said at the start, it's not as good as Fingersmith, but as I haven't read any others, I don't know how it compares to Sarah Water's other books. I'd have liked this to be slightly less ambiguous at the end. I usually like ambiguity, but I think there was just a little too much here.


Anonymous said...

I don't think I enjoyed this book even half as much as I did Fingersmith. Maybe it's not fair to compare the two, but... it's kind of hard not to, considering, like you, Fingersmith is the only other book by Sarah Waters that I've read.

Dot said...

I think I am going to try and get this from the library, the only other one of hers that I have read is Affinity and I really enjoyed it! Thanks for the great review!

Jo said...

Anothercookiecrumbles, I agree it's probably not fair to compare because they are so different. I will try something else though I think perhaps reading Fingersmith first, none will ever be as good.

Dot, Affinity is the one I've got my eye on next, hopefully early next year.

Lesley said...

I love all of her books, but Fingersmith is definitely my favorite. My vote would be to make your third Waters book Affinity.