Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book Review : The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Virago Press 2009)

It may be an exaggeration to say that British novelists write of little else but class, but it is certainly the case that a number of significant recent novels have examined  class-incompatibility and the decline of the English gentry over the course of the 20th Century.  Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Stranger’s Child” charts the decline of one part of a wealthy family through the rise and fall of its poet-son’s reputation. The crux of Julian Barnes “The Sense of an Ending”  arises essentially out of a sense of class-based inferiority. Meanwhile, Sarah Waters’ “The Little Stranger” charts another gentry-class family’s decline in the immediate aftermath of the second world war through the unusual medium of a ghost story.

As a child, Faraday had visited the Ayres family at Hundreds Hall where his mother was in service. Now that he is a doctor in the local town, he is called to examine Betty, a young servant, and strikes up a friendship with the members of the family. Mrs Ayres is now widowed, and has two surviving children, her eldest daughter having died from diphtheria. Her surviving children are now in their twenties. Roderick was badly burned during the war, whilst Caroline is rather plain and unmarried. Hundreds Hall itself is badly in need of repair – the income from the estate has diminished, and financial anxieties are crowding in on Roderick who has taken over the running of the Estate since the death of his father.

Betty has claimed that the Hall frightens her, but there is no evidence of any malign force until a dinner party where Gyp, Caroline’s docile Labrador, suddenly savages a neighbour’s child. After this, strange occurrences take place with increasing frequency. Roderick is convinced there is an evil spirit in the house – but could this just be the strain of his injuries and the family finances taking their toll? Mrs Ayres agrees there may be a spirit – could this be her beloved daughter trying to reach her?

Meanwhile, Faraday has struck up a tentative relationship with an uncertain Caroline, and is becoming more involved in the problems of the house. His medical experience is invaluable as he deals with the consequences of the strange manifestations in the house. As an educated man, he is sure there is a rational explanation for what is occurring. Could it be psychoneurosis, or has Roddy's subliminal self somehow broken loose from his conscious personality and returned to the house, as his colleague Seeley suggests?

The narrative is told from Faraday's perspective, but could he be more implicated more than he reveals in the narrative? Before each major crisis, he has been in the vicinity of the house, sometimes drinking, always upset and on the morning afterwards has suffered bad night’s sleep? Who is the “you” to whom Caroline refers? He is not entirely a pleasant character, having a temper and a suspicious nature, and has clearly not got over the perceived disadvantages of his poor upbringing. He is getting more frustrated with the barriers to his relationship with Caroline. Has he fully resolved his feelings towards the family for whom his mother spent time in service?  A mischievous spirit or a rational explanation? - Sarah Waters leaves conclusions to the reader.

Coming from the doctor’s perspective, the book is written in flat, businesslike prose. Description  is kept to a minimum, yet the time and place are brilliantly evoked. The sparseness means that when the crises occur, the description of them is all the more shocking – and I can guarantee that once you get into the book it is so gripping that it almost impossible to put down. Yet the class-based ambiguities at the heart of it mean that this is no mere page-turner but an extremely sensitive, thought-provoking and intriguing story.

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