One of the fun side-effects of Project 24 (although not as frequent as I’d hoped it would be) has been reading books which have lain neglected on my bookshelves for quite a while. And one of those was The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, lent to me by lovely Curzon a long, long time ago… (and which has now become #14 on Project 24, because I accidentally tore some pages, and bought Curzon a replacement copy, keeping the original… oops! Not my usual style, promise.) It seemed the perfect sort of thing to take away with me on holiday, staying in rambling old houses converted into Youth Hostels. I read most of it in Grinton Lodge Youth Hostel, which looks like this:
Everyone in the blogosphere seemed to be reading The Little Stranger around the time I was on holiday last year. I, on the other hand, was reading things by Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Taylor, Janni Visman… well, better late than never. Still, there must be one or two people who are later than me in reading The Little Stranger, so I won’t assume universal knowledge…
Waters, who made her name with Victorian novels (including the only I’d previously read: Affinity) has been moving steadily nearer the present, and The Little Stranger is set just after World War Two. All except the first scene, which is much earlier – the protagonist is a little boy being snuck into Hundreds Hall by his mother, who is a servant there. He loves the house, and wants to take a souvenir – hacking a plaster acorn from a corridor. From little acorns…
Next we see, the little boy has become Dr. Faraday and is heading out to Hundreds Hall because the (now sole) servant Betty is complaining of illness. Turns out she just wants to get away from the house for a bit – because she senses things are wrong. Quite how they’re wrong, she doesn’t specify; but something is wrong. But this incident leads Faraday to an increasingly close intimacy with the family – plain, unmarried Caroline; her brother Roderick who is recovering from a nasty war injury, and their dignified mother, simply Mrs. Ayres. Faraday is excited about being able to visit a house he has admired since childhood, and Hundreds Hall is certainly a powerful presence in the novel. Its former glory, and its current decay, are realised wonderfully by Waters. It’s something of a truism to say that ‘the house is itself a character’, but you have to take your hat off to Waters’ ability to invest Hundreds Hall with this power without it becoming a caricature of Gothic literature. The house remains comfort and terror; mystery and simplicity; homely and unhomely.
For soon Betty’s claims that something’s wrong seem to be true. A party is held (Mrs. Ayres’ is trying to set up Caroline with a neighbouring bachelor) where a young girl is savaged by Caroline’s usually docile dog. At the same time, Roderick is experiencing ghostly goings-on in his bedroom…
I’m not going to spoil the ensuing events, but suffice it to say there appears to be a ‘little stranger’ creating all sort of havoc for the Ayres family. Since The Little Stranger is narrated by Faraday, we often aren’t ‘present’ for the events, but Waters does a simply brilliant job of relaying them later (usually a big no-no for writers) without losing the tension. And this is quite a scary book. I’ve not read many scary books since my Point Horror phase, and perhaps a slightly creepy old Youth Hostel wasn’t the best place to read this novel… I was a little scared to close my eyes.
Waters has suggested that The Little Stranger is primarily about class issues – as Faraday rises from the servant’s son to a family friend, and can’t get over some of his lingering resentment; similarly, the grounds of Hundreds Hall are being sold off to modern estates. Waters has even said that the ghost story element was a later addition. I’m glad she did, because novels which centre around class issues can be very tiresome if not done well, especially if they’re retrospective. I prefer contemporary novels (‘contemporary’ is such a frustrating phrase… I mean contemporary-to-the-period-described, rather than contemporary-meaning-modern) which don’t feel the need to hammer home how awful middle-class pretensions were, or throw their hands up in horror at the idea of servants. Waters doesn’t fall into this trap, but I fear she’d have been nearer to it had the ghost-story element not crossed her mind.
For the most part, The Little Stranger was brilliant. You know me and long books, but I read this in two or three days; got up early to finish it, etc. etc. Waters’ writing is pacy and compelling without sacrificing style, and I am really keen to read more by her. True, there was a little bit of a drag between p.100 and p.200, but only a little – and the second half of the novel flew by.
And then… the ending. Which I obviously don’t want to discuss in detail. Close your eyes and sing la-la-la if you don’t want even the remotest spoilers, but… I was disappointed and confused in about equal measure. And I shan’t say more than that. I just wish Waters had given the novel a different sort of ending – if she had, then A Little Stranger could have been one of my favourite novels of the year, possibly the favourite. As it is, it might make top ten, but only just. Possibly very clever and cunning, but… disappointing.
More or less everyone seems to have reviewed this, so I suggest you do what I did and search for it in Fyrefly’s incredibly useful Blog Search Engine. But I will point you to this excellent discussion on Shelf Love: be warned, it is spoilerific.
Books to get Stuck into:
Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier: Curzon reminded me how appropriate this would be as a companion read, and it’s the book I *always* recommend to people when they ask for reading ideas. And it’s Simon S’s favourite novel! No review on Siab yet… but see Simon S’s enthusiasm here.
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson: my favourite American writer is definitely the Gothic side of horror, and rarely has the power of the house been drawn so chillingly or convincingly.