Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which I recently read, is a book that works on two distinct but interlinked levels. On one hand it’s an atmospheric haunted-house story, on the other it’s about the blurring of the class divide in post-WWII Britain, and the effect this has – materially and psychologically – on both the old rich and on upwardly mobile members of what used to be the servant class.
The setting for this clash of cultures is a once-grand mansion called Hundreds Hall whose inhabitants – the elderly Mrs Ayres and her two children Caroline and Roderick – used to be landed gentry but who are now casualties of a changing social order. The vastness of the house they live in – most of its rooms ill-maintained and in disuse – is perversely disproportionate to their actual financial standing and lifestyle; it almost seems to mock them. (As a reader one can sometimes forget the book is set in 1947, the Ayres appear ossified in a much earlier age.) Into this world comes the book’s narrator, the middle-aged Dr Faraday, who had seen Hundreds Hall once before, as a child – his mother used to work there as a nursemaid. Faraday tentatively crosses the class divide, becoming the Ayres’ friend and a regular visitor, but he can’t quite understand why the family is so terrified of the house, and the hold it has on them. Surely there’s a commonsense explanation for all those strange noises and mysterious markings?
This book is underscored by personal tragedies, minor and major. There’s the tragedy of a family struggling to survive in a world that no longer has place for their “type”; the tragedy of a woman who lost a little daughter decades earlier and has never come to terms with it; a war-scarred young man who has been forced to grow up too soon, and a plain-looking young lady with few prospects. But what struck me most was the theme of people clinging to the past, afraid to let go, even when presented the choice of a better future. “I expect you think what most people must think when they’ve seen Hundreds as it is nowadays,” Caroline tells Faraday at one point, “that we’re absolutely mad to go on living there, trying to keep it the way it was...[but] the truth is, you see, we know how lucky we are to have lived there at all. We have to sort of keep the place in order, keep up our side of the bargain.”
“Keep up our side of the bargain”...even if you’re swallowed up in the process. This idea is central to the book. Caroline’s words reminded me, poignantly, of Norman Bates telling Marion Crane in the parlour-scene in Psycho that he couldn’t abandon his mother, because “the fire would go out...it would be cold and damp like a grave...if you love someone, you don’t do that to them even if you hate them”. The relationship between the Ayres family and Hundreds Hall is intense, deeply ambivalent and mutually dependent; you can tell that neither is going to let go of the other.
Part of what makes The Little Stranger such a tantalising read is that we share the vantage point of an unimaginative – or perhaps obdurate – man. Dr Faraday is deadly dull, so blinkered in his rationalism that even the most rational-minded reader will yearn to see him proved wrong (“Give him a real scare!” one wants to shout out to any ghosts that might be lurking in the dark corners of Hundreds). But on occasion one also senses a shadowiness in his motives. At one level, it’s possible to read this as a story about a man who has been accepted as a friend and near-equal into a house where his mother once worked as a servant, and whose (inappropriate) presence sets off a violent chain of events – events that he, subconsciously at least, contributes to. In a sense he and the house are in perpetual conflict, even if he doesn’t realise it.
But Waters’ book remains open to multiple interpretations. Who or what is the “little stranger” and what exactly is the strangeness in question? It’s possible to say that we learn the answer to these questions on the last page – in fact, in the very last sentence. But it’s equally possible to say that we never learn it at all, and finally that adds to the book’s enigmatic quality. I closed it thinking it had been a moderately good read (if I were inclined to allot “marks” to books - which I'm not - I would probably have rated it a 7.5 on 10), but in subsequent days I found that it had crawled under my skin and I couldn't stop thinking about it.
I digress, but the Ayreses, as described in this post, remind me of the Ambersons in Orson Welles' wonderful film - The Magnificent Ambersons . Maybe one can draw parallels between Dr.Faraday and Eugene Morgan (as played by Joseph Cotten) in the Welles film.ReplyDelete
By the way, I'd love to see you review older novels. As far as I know, you've stuck to reviewing recent publications on this blog.ReplyDelete
As far as I know, you've stuck to reviewing recent publications on this blog.ReplyDelete
shrikanth: that's because I work mainly on the books beat and most of the stuff I get asked to review is new stuff. The book posts on this blog are always versions of something I've written officially.
Wish I could find the time just to read some of the older novels I want to, let alone write about them!
Sarah Waters is one of my favourite authors, but Fingersmith and Affinity, her earlier novels, are far superior to The Little Stranger, I think. Though I do agree TLS improves greatly on rereading. Its the only one of her novels without a lesbian couple, btw.ReplyDelete
post a review of 'Three Idiots' na...would love to read your take (I loved it!)ReplyDelete
I thought Dr Farraday's pathetic ambition, of actually living in Hundreds Hall and being married to the squire's daughter, so to speak, was brilliantly woven into the narrative. Just like you, I couldn't get the book out of my head for many days. Sarah Waters was one of the authors I read for the first time this year (read Nightwatch?) and it's been a very satisfying discovery.ReplyDelete
Glad you finally got around to reviewing TLS...I'd asked you abt it once before. Completely agree with your comment abt the book staying with you even after you're done reading it. As for the 'little stranger', I felt it was the spirit of the long-dead child that was creating all the mischief...as if it wanted to reclaim the house and its members. Who/what else could it be?ReplyDelete
I felt it was the spirit of the long-dead child that was creating all the mischief...as if it wanted to reclaim the house and its members. Who/what else could it be?ReplyDelete
Sambit: that's a very cut-and-dry interpretation, but the book itself is much more ambiguous. As suggested at one point, it could be an intangible spirit that was spooking each individual family member using the device that would personally affect them most (hence the dead little girl for Mrs Ayres). Spoiler Alert etc The bit about Caroline crying out "You!" just before she fell to her death strongly suggested to me that what she had seen was an apparition taking the form of Dr Faraday (the person she was trying desperately to distance herself from and no longer wanted anything to do with). Or even the ghost of her dead mother. It wouldn't have had the same resonance if she had exclaimed that on seeing the ghost of the little girl (whom she had never known anyway).
There's also another, psychological interpretation of the term "little stranger" given in the story, as I recall. And at the end of the book we are reminded that Dr Faraday is a stranger to everything the house stands for (and he was very much a "little stranger" when he first entered it as a child, as described at the beginning).
In other words, lots of different possibilities, not all of which are mutually exclusive. Simply explaining it as "the ghost of the little girl" would make the book much less interesting, to me at least.
Jai, its a spooky book allright ! just could'nt help thinking it was the good doctor , all the time. remember how , as a child, he chips off a section of the magnificent wall. And as unmarried middle aged GP , he's conveniently at hand to despatch one aristocratic Ayres after another, to the asylum.ReplyDelete
But read 'Fingersmith' ; its set in victorian england, in an Oliver Twist kind of gang of crooksters and it's magnificent !
This sounds like deliciously creepy book - a perfect read for chilly winter evenings. Have you noticed how good mansion ghost stories are always set in English houses ?ReplyDelete
@Jai: Agree with your pov...hadn't thought abt it before.ReplyDelete
Does anyone see a link between Little Stranger and Fingersmith? I read Fingersmith after Little Stranger and i just felt that the name suky - Suky Smith and Suky the little girl lost in Stranger maybe quite significant? I don't know - is there a link? Or am I reading too much into it?ReplyDelete
To me the scariest part of the book was the "You" that Caroline uttered just before her death. And I do believe it was the good old doctor whom she saw in flesh and blood rather than merely as an apparition. It's a creepy book allright. How would one feel if a man one thought gentle and caring turned out to be a monster! Incidentally, Jai have you read the Josephine Tey novel with which this novel critically engages?ReplyDelete