Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Published April 2009 by Penguin Group
Source: this one is mine

In post-World War  II Britain, Faraday, a country doctor raised by working class parents, is called in to care for an ailing maid at Hundreds Hall, an 18th-century estate where his mother once worked as a maid. While there, Faraday befriends the family of the house, Mrs. Ayers, who continues to exude the charm and grace of a period which is fast fading, daughter Caroline who has returned home to care for her brother, and son Roderick who has returned from the war wounded.

Faraday begins treating Roderick's injuries, giving him an excuse to visit Hundreds often. He is drawn to the family and a way of life he has admired all of his life. But times are changing and the family is struggling to maintain their hold on their land and their way of life. The house and the family are both fading, as are those around them. An estate nearby has even had to be sold to an American family who bring with them a brother, and maybe an opportunity for Caroline to find a husband who can help the family.

In an effort to make an impression on the American family, the Ayers' host a cocktail party for their neighbors. But when disaster strikes during the party, it is only the start of a downward spiral for the family and the house. Faraday becomes more and more entangled with the Ayers but even he has a hard time finding an explanation for what's happening that makes sense. Is the cause madness or is there something evil about the house?

In The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters has crafted a story that echoes Gothic novels without resorting to the cliches they entail, largely because she has made the cause of the problems at Hundreds Hall ambiguous. Is there an evil presence at work, a ghost or an inherent evil in the house itself? Is everything that happens the result of one person's efforts to drive a family mad? Or is it merely the stress of the struggle to adjust to a new way of life? Has hysteria overtaken the family or is there a "some dark germ, some ravenous shadow-creature, some 'little stranger' spawned from the troubled unconscious of someone connected with the house itself?"

The Little Stranger is as much a book about class structure and the advent of socialism in Britain following World War II as it is a book about a haunted house. At one point Faraday is trying to work out the issue with another doctor and he says " It's as if - well, as if something's slowly sucking the life out of the whole family." "Something is," the other doctor tells him. "It's called a Labour Government.The Ayers' problem - don't you think? - is that they can't, or won't, adapt." Faraday himself, whose parents worked themselves to death to send him to school to become something more, wrestles with with his own awe of the upper class, his desire to be a part of it.

Those who have read a number of Waters' books, and like this one, tell me it's not her best. Which makes me even more anxious to read more of her novels because I really, really liked this one a lot. Seriously, I was afraid to read parts of this book too late at night and I loved the subtle way Waters did that. Nothing in your face, no blood and gore, no "here's what you should be afraid of." It's just the way I like scary movies; the unknown is much more frightening to me than a vampire. The idea rather than the reality. In the end, I'm still not sure what happened at Hundreds Hall, leaving me still thinking about the book weeks after finishing it.

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