Tuesday 27 December 2011

Book Review | The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

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In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at Hundreds Hall.

Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, this handsome Georgian house, once grand and elaborate, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine.

But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his. 


There are only a few things in life I love more than a good ghost story, especially once the chill of winter's set in.

Well it has - and how - so I went to work.

I'd be hard pressed now to think of a greater ghost story than The Little Stranger. Certainly nothing else written this century can hold a candle to it.

Speaking of candles, the surviving Ayreses have precious little else with which to light their way around Hundreds Hall - so hard-up have they become in the years since the war, and the untimely expiration of the former master of this once-great estate - so when night falls, life in this country house simply... stops.

Except there's something, isn't there? It beggars belief, but there must be. Something, or someone, that is in fact quite at home creaking around in the pitch dark and the thick damp of Hundreds' closed-off upper floors, when everyone else has taken to bed. And it's becoming bolder; more daring; more dangerous by the day.

Into this outwardly forbidding and inwardly escalating environment comes, on a seemingly routine call, bachelor-about-town Dr. Faraday.

"It was the purest chance that took me out there, for the Ayreses were registered with my partner, David Graham; but he was busy with an emergency case that day, so when the family sent out for a doctor the request was passed on to me. My heart began to sink almost the moment I let myself into the park. I remembered a long approach to the house through neat rhododendron and laurel, but the park was no so overgrown and untended, my small car had to fight its way down the drive. When I broke free of the bushes at last and found myself on a sweep of lumpy gravel with the Hall directly ahead of me, I put on the brake, and gaped in dismay. [...] What horrified me were the signs of decay. Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away, so that the house's uncertain Georgian outline was even more tentative than before. Ivy had spread, then patchily died, and hung like tangled rat's-tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams." (p.5)

A working class fellow come good, if not as good as he might like, Dr. Faraday has thought fondly of Hundreds Hall his entire adult life, ever since attending a prize-giving ceremony at the estate where Faraday's dear departed mother was once a serving girl. Decades later, he returns to give aid to the Ayreses' own maid, but poor young Betty isn't ill, only spooked. You see, something in Hundreds has scared her half to death.

Whether it is real or merely imagined, our man will become intimately familiar with this ghastly phantasm the more time he spends attending the various Ayreses, and to Faraday's surprise, Caroline, Roderick, and their ailing mother are in need of a great deal of help -- help he's happy to give, initially. Ashamed of their fallen stature, not least their dilapidated estate, the Ayreses have lived in near-complete isolation for years, and in Faraday they finally find a line out into the town, and an audience for their stories, as old as time and as fine as antique wine. Helping them through the hard winter, he becomes quite the family friend... and ultimately, maybe more.

But all the while, there's something afoot. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something - invariably - blue. Something, in short, that seems to mean the family harm. As a supporting player suggests:

"Is that so surprising, with thing for that family so bleak? The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners. Let's call it a -- a germ. And let's say the conditions prove right for that germ to develop -- to grow, like a child in the womb. What would this little stranger grow into? A sort of shadow-self, perhaps: a Caliban, a Mr. Hyde. A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the consicous mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice, and frustration." (p.380)

The Little Stranger is Sarah Waters' fifth novel, after Tipping the Velvet, Affinity, Fingersmith and The Night Watch, and it is, I think, by a large margin her finest. That said, I do have rather a fondness for speculative fiction - had you heard? - and though there have been certain dalliances in the past, this is the only of Waters' novels which could feasibly be described in such a way.

Note, though, that The Little Stranger did not begin as a ghost story - not according to the author, and to a certain extent I think this shows - and it does not necessarily end as one, either. Rather, the horrid goings-on at Hundreds Hall emerge from almost nowhere, from out of the woodwormed woodwork of this ruinous mansion as if they'd merely been biding their time, waiting for the right moment to strike.

And when the penny does drop, it does not feel forced, or at all false. The atmosphere of Hundreds Hall is such that if there hadn't been something secreted within its rotten reaches, I would have been sorely disappointed.

I was not.

There will be some who say The Little Stranger takes a long time to get where we know, or where we think we know it's going... but no. I'm sorry... but no. Because in advance of all that, there's cruel and unusual class conflict, excruciating romantic entanglement and occasional comedy. There's tension and suspense; meanwhile moments of unadulterated terror and terrible tragedy. Waters writes dialogue which peels clean off the page, and deposits it into the mouths and minds of such original, outspoken characters that they seem as alive (until they are not) as you or I.

Sarah Waters is an uncannily talented author, and whether or not this is her finest work, as I assert, it is in every sense - in terms of setting, character, narrative, and nuance - the equal of the very best ghost stories of yore.

These are not things I say lightly, but in this case I must say them, for I found The Little Stranger perfectly impossible to put down. It is the very definition of gripping... an absolute masterclass in ghostie goings-on. And marvelously, the author leaves the door open for multiple readings, and contradicting interpretations of what exactly has gone on in Hundreds Hall. 

The Little Stranger is The Turn of the Screw of our generation, and it is every bit as haunting, and as harrowing. With the festive season in full swing, and the hopeless cold to come, there is, I think, no better time to catch up on this creepy contemporary classic than now.


The Little Stranger
by Sarah Waters

UK Publication: May 2009, Virago Press
US Publication: April 2009, Riverhead Books

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