October 5, 2009

Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

Posted in Waters Sarah at 2:29 pm by John Self

The Little Stranger is another book that I read only because of its Booker shortlisting (though I’m not sure that’s a good explanation in itself).  I’d read her last two (also Booker shortlisted) novels, Fingersmith and The Night Watch, and liked them to varying degrees without doing anything mad like declaring myself a fan, or hanging onto them.  These tempered expectations meant that her new novel turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger is tagged on the blurb as “a chilling ghost story”, which is both true and misleading.  In an interview, Waters said that while in the process of writing the book, she became ‘stuck’ and decided then on the introduction of a ghost.  Her primary interest initially was to explore the social changes in Britain after the second world war.

She does this very effectively.  The story centres on Hundreds Hall in Warwickshire, home to the Ayres family.  Our narrator, Dr Faraday, is a local family doctor, who worked his way up from “humble beginnings” to his present status, and is worried that the imminent introduction of the National Health Service by the postwar Labour government will send him crashing back down. Faraday’s mother worked at Hundreds Hall when he was a child, and he can still remember his first impression of the house:

[It] struck me as an absolute mansion.  I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edging.  They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain – like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.

By the time Ayres returns to the Hall, called in the course of his work to attend to a sick maid, the melting is well and truly underway.  Living in the house now are Mrs Ayres, and her twenty-something children Caroline and Roderick.  With just two domestic staff, the fabric of the house (and spirit of the household) is crumbling, which Faraday attributes in part to the loss of the working class staff: “after two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards.”

There is another problem too.  A belief begins to spread through the Ayreses that Hundreds Hall is haunted, perhaps by the spirit of Mrs Ayres’ first daughter Susan, who died aged seven.  The story that unfolds tells of the effect that this belief has on the family, the house and on Faraday himself.

There is a great deal to like in The Little Stranger, in particular Waters’ almost miraculous ability to grab the reader and not let go through the long passages of spooky activity in the house.  It is also a portrayal of those postwar social changes referred to above, such as the decline of the landed gentry: the upper middle classes, like the Ayres family, are haunted by the spectre of the rising working class, their Labour government, their welfare state.  “What’s left for an old family like that in England nowadays?”  The land around Hundreds Hall is sold off to make ends meet, and council homes are built up.  Mrs Ayres feels that her world “is dwindling to the point of a pin.”  Roderick tips closer and closer to the edge:

‘I think they’d like nothing better than to hang us all from the mainbrace; they’re just waiting for Attlee to give them the word.  He probably will, too.  Ordinary people hate our sort now, don’t you see?’

Faraday’s own relationship with the Ayres and their “sort” is complicated.  He envies them their elevated status and resents them for allowing their house to fall into disrepair.  He resents too his own origins in “labouring stock”, and is embarrassed by how, as a young man, he came to feel ashamed of his parents.  Even his respectable occupation can’t obscure some kind of self-loathing: “I’m a nobody.  People don’t even see me half the time.  They see ‘Doctor’.  They see the bag.”

The weakness of the book for me was the repeated hints dropped by Waters about the true source of the Ayres’s problems.  It’s so heavily signposted that there is little room for interpretation, except around the edges of things like knowledge and intent.  It closes down possibilities even as it opens them up.  This, combined with the just-so symbolism and despite the room for discussion which is likely to make this a book group favourite, helps give The Little Stranger the neatness and cosiness of what some call ‘establishment literary fiction’.  Nonetheless I enjoyed reading it, not least because Waters is a great storyteller who pulls the reader through 500 pages a lot more smoothly than Hilary Mantel does (or than Simon Mawer does through 400). 

It struck me that The Little Stranger has some similarities with Patrick McGrath‘s 1996 novel Asylum, not just in the postwar setting or the narrative by a medical man (an authority figure in whom we automatically place our trust), but also in the psychological playout of the story.  However Asylum, I believe, is more subtle and complex (Jonathan Coe, a Booker judge in 1996, recently regretted that it didn’t win the prize then) … and at 250 pages, is also half the length.

Please note: if you haven’t read The Little Stranger, the comments below contain spoilers

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79 Comments »

  1. Deb said,

    What a coincidence—I just finished The Little Stranger a couple of days ago and enjoyed it—up until the last 50 or so pages, when it became obvious that the ending was going to be left deliberately ambiguous and I felt that Walters hadn’t played quite fair with her readers, and this left me feeling slightly let down. (Certainly more could have been done with the fact that the narrator had keys to Hundreds Hall and could not account for his whereabouts when his ex-fiancee met her fate.) Perhaps Walters couldn’t decide whether she was writing a social novel or a ghost story; of course, there’s no reason that the two have to be mutually-exclusive, but I still would have liked the book more if the ending had been stronger. I would say that of the two post-WWII books Walters has written, I enjoyed The Night Watch far more—especially with its somewhat tricky backwards narrative.

  2. John Self said,

    That’s very interesting, Deb. I suppose I should declare for anyone coming to this before reading The Little Stranger that messages here could CONTAIN SPOILERS, though I’ve done my best to keep them out of the main review.

    My gripe, as indicated above, was that it was too obvious that the narrator was key to the whole thing, ie it wasn’t ambiguous enough! I didn’t see any way of interpreting it in any other way, as the hints were coming all too thick and fast by the end. But I should say that I had been pre-loaded to expect something like that, as I read elsewhere of there being an ‘unreliable narrator’ in the book, so others may have got further through it without feeling they were being hammered over the head every time Faraday spoke of feeling guilty, or resentful of his relative social standing. By the time Caroline started explicitly accusing him (more or less), and the night spent in the car outside Hundreds Hall, I was rolling my eyes in exasperation, thinking, OK, OK, we’ve got it!

  3. Deb said,

    Oh God, I’m so sorry–I didn’t even think about that! Please feel free to edit out my spoiler.

  4. Mary said,

    I agree with Deb. I felt the ending was disappointing and I’m not convinced by readers of other blogs who claimed to have found extraordinarily subtle `clues’ as to what was really going on. I’ve revealed here that I found the book intriguing to the extent that I searched on the internet for fellow readers to help explain to me who dun it. ( Was I being incredibly thick? Were there fascinating hints lying around that I had clumsily ignored?) In the end I came to the conclusion that Waters really hadn’t wrapped up the narrative ( she’s admitted it since) but there’s enough ambiguity for a lot of interesting debate as you say.The descriptions of the house created a very claustrophobic feeling and I felt relief when the action moved outside Hundreds Hall – something that displays Waters’ skill as a writer. It’s the Booker book I’ve enjoyed reading the most ( Byatt and Mantel being the others) but I haven’t read Summertime which I know has been the front runner on this blog and which sounds a more complex book than the three I’ve mentioned.

  5. Mary said,

    SPOILER Now we’re in spoiler mode I ‘ll just add that I felt cheated by the final sentence. It was Faraday and his class envy at the bottom of it all? So obvious. So frustrating and in light of what had gone on – unconvincing. Hence my desperate trawl for missed clues….

  6. John Self said,

    I’ve added a postscript to my review to warn of spoilers down here.

    Mary: in a nutshell, yes, though I think there’s still an argument to be had (which can probably never be resolved) whether he knew he was doing it. Of course, then you might ask, what about the burn marks, or the lettering on the walls, or the fact that Betty felt spookiness before Faraday returned to the house. Well, the thing about an unreliable narrator is that he’s your only source for all information, so there’s no telling what he could say happened, and nobody can dispute it because it’s his story. Or is it that he had keys to the house and could have created all sorts of mayhem consciously or not? Is that too neat? Still, there is (apparently, as I haven’t read it) a good deal of homage to James’s The Turn of the Screw and Josephine Tey novels to chew on as well.

    I am probably hypersensitive to unreliable narrators, being a fan of Ishiguro and Patrick McGrath – but, as I say, I did read somewhere before I opened The Little Stranger that it had an unreliable narrator, so I was on guard from the start. Interestingly, the Guardian on Saturday (can’t find a link) rather gave it away too by saying that if the book wins, it will be the first crime novel to win the Booker!

  7. Deb said,

    I’m with Mary–I feel as if the narrator wasn’t unreliable enough.

  8. Ben Johncock said,

    I’m still scratching my head as to why Waters in on the Booker shortlist at all (twice, no less!). WT, as they say, F?

  9. I’m a reader who likes ambiguity, so I was quite happy with the ending. It could have been a ghost, after all, if you are willing to believe in ghosts. Or the whole process may be a phantasm, shared by all the residents and the doctor. Or Caroline. Or, of course, Dr. Farrady. Or some combination of these factors. I don’t regard it as a crime story with only one solution (Waters’ previous books are quite concise with the “reveal” at the ending) so I rather like the notion that readers need to keep all theses possibilities in their head. And I do agree that the best part of the book is the way it captures the changes that were taking place at the time.

    • Late here because I’ve just finished the book. I agree with you Kevin. I don’t think it was that simple – that she’s made it ambiguous for a reason. Poltergeists are about released negative energy. There is a lot of negative energy in that house, a lot of frustration, from Mrs Ayres, Caroline, Roderick and Dr Faraday. I’m inclined to think that it was a combination of all their negative energies and moreover I think it was unconscious. I’m inclined to read it that Social Change is hard and along the way a lot of people get hurt.

  10. John Self said,

    Well clearly Waters is doing something right, if some readers think it too ambiguous, others not ambiguous enough, and some judge it just right!

    Oh and Ben – three times. Oh yes.

    • Ben Johncock said,

      I doff my cap to your superior knowledge, Sir!

      Three times is even worse – that’s stretching back to her earlier, Victorian sex-romps.

      She’s the staple beacon of optimism to writers everywhere – If she can get on the shortlist, so one day can I

      I think it’s deliberate ploy to make the prize seem more accessible. Tenner says she makes at least the longlist next year.

      • John Self said,

        I’ll take that bet, thanks Ben. I’m pretty sure Waters won’t have a novel out next year, so I think my tenner is pretty safe. I accept pounds, dollars or euros by the way.

  11. 1streading said,

    What struck me when I read it a couple of months ago was that either the narrator is unreliable to the point of simply making up many of the events he describes or there is no non-supernatural solution to the mystery. If the former then I feel Waters has strayed from ‘unrelaible narrator’ to ‘cheated reader'; if the latter then I don’t think we can take it very seriously, although it did amuse me that the most rational character might be at the centre of all the poltergeist activity.
    What no-one has really mentioned, though, is what all this tells us about Waters’ attitude to her theme of social change.

    • Deb said,

      The problem I have, as I stated above, is that Farraday is not presented as an unreliable narrator. Only two scenes really seemed to indicate that Farraday’s viw of reality was at significant odds with the views of others: The scene where Caroline makes it clear that she expects to live in London after she and Farraday are married and Farraday fails to see that a large part of his attractiveness in Caroline’s eyes is his ability to get her away from Hundreds Hall. The second scene is where Farraday’s partner’s wife reacts to Caroline breaking off the engagement. It’s clear that she sees that Caroline has no intention of ever marrying Farraday, but he persists in believing he can win her back.

      Contrast this with the numerous scenes in which Farraday’s common sense grasp of what is going on is confirmed in conversation with his colleagues. These scenes with his fellow doctors indicate that Farraday is a level-headed chap who is going above and beyond the call to help Caroline and her family.

      If Farraday is meant to be unreliable, Waters should present him as such. I’m not saying I want him to wear a sandwich board that reads I AM AN UNRELIABLE NARRATOR, but Waters should play fair with readers. (For example, I think it’s made far clearer in Asylum that the narrator is not reliable.) Perhaps, like the writers of “Casablanca,” Waters didn’t know how her own story was going to end while she was writing it and so she continued to plant clues both pro and con until she ran out of steam and just ended it. All in all, it was a great book for the first three-quarters, but a bit of a let-down at the end.

  12. Deana said,

    I’m so glad you liked it. I did too, but I can’t escape the feeling that Sarah Waters can do much better. She does everything right and then falls into a trap (there’s always something wrong about all of her books and it’s always a different thing). I think her best work remains to be written.

    • John Self said,

      Yes despite my grumbes, Deana, I did enjoy reading it – ‘unputdownable’ is not far off the mark. Care to clarify what you think the weaknesses of her other books are? For me, the structure of The Night Watch was both its raison d’etre and its achilles heel. (Wow, three cliches in one comment!)

  13. Teresa said,

    I think it’s amply clear that Faraday is the source of the problem, although, John, you’re the first person I’ve seen who caught on to that so early. For me, it was late in the novel that I put that together, but once I did, it fit so perfectly that I can’t imagine another solution.

    But I still think there’s plenty of room for ambiguity regarding what and how. I’d decided that it was supernatural but that Faraday was the source (probably unconsciously) but then I see here that others think he could have faked the whole thing, which I hadn’t thought of. (It had occurred to me that he wasn’t honest in his account.)

    It seems to me that with so many people still puzzling out what was gonig on–and wanting to figure it out–Waters must have done something right. I’d be surprised if this were to win the prize, but I don’t think it should be dismissed as something slight, which some seem inclined to do.

  14. maxdunbar said,

    Fpr me the realisation that Faraday is the ghost came about three quarters of the way through and by then I couldn’t put the thing down. Arguably the process starts when, as a child, he breaks the acorn off the wall. The fact that he had keys is something I hadn’t considered but I think the nub is in Seeley’s speech about the ‘little stranger’ itself. The idea that a ghost would not have to be dead seemed original to me.

  15. maxdunbar said,

    and it has to be said, I knew people who read the whole book without suspecting Faraday of anything.

    • Deb Walter said,

      One of those would be me….

  16. Lee Monks said,

    Well guys, the result is nearly upon us. I’m not saying it’s a Christmas-esque frisson of hardwired excitement exactly, but I do like a good book award, a swanky celebration (which is what it is, whoever’s up for the gong) of literature. And any such thing is a good thing, however slight. One can only hope that it isn’t another compromising symposium of Mantel genuflectors, but even if it is, it’s about as big a shebang as we get over here. And you never know, the hat-trick may be on…

  17. John Self said,

    Teresa, Deb, 1streader and max – I think the clues to Faraday’s involvement are so glaringly obvious once you read it from the viewpoint that he is involved that it actually makes the book, as max has pointed out, even more gripping. Of course this is a somewhat circular point, but I suspect some of the judges had different experiences of reading it, which probably influenced them to put the book further, and also enhanced their rereading – hence its advancement to the shortlist.

    As I mentioned above, it’s a highwire act for an author to get an unreliable narrator ‘right’ – and the majority of the ‘clues’ to Faraday lie not in conflicting accounts with other people, but with details of his class resentment and feelings of responsibility. That he even articulates these – where a clever liar would try to hide them – may mean that his unreliability is such that he just doesn’t know what he’s doing, or why he’s doing it, and that his involvement is either subconscious or unconscious. Of course if all the clues meant nothing and there was just a ‘real’ ghost, then – as 1streading says – you’re left with a bit of a trifle, and all what seem to be clues are just coincidental. I don’t buy that.

    • Deb said,

      But John, your explanation presupposes that everyone who reads the book is going to assume that Farraday is an unreliable narrator right from the start and realize immediately that he is behind all of the manifestations of the little stranger. If Farraday is indeed responsible for the “haunting” and its aftermath, I would like Waters to have written a little more about how Farraday moved large pieces of furniture, put scorch marks on the walls, locked the nursery door, made the speaker tube work, made the service bells ring, knew exactly what little Susan’s childish scrawl looked like, knew precisely what the Ayres family reactions to all these things would be, etc. Not to flog a dead horse, but the ending of the book really lets down what came before it, because it feels unresolved—not just deliberately ambiguous.

      It puts me in mind of a feature that used to run in either Salon or Slate called “The Scene We Missed.” They would take a movie with an improbable ending and write a scene which, had it been included in the movie, would have made sense of the ending. It was all tongue-in-cheek; the added scenes would include things like time travel, super powers, or a character being two places at one time, because these were the only things that made sense of the ending. If Farraday did everything (up to and including the murder of Caroline) just to get his hands on Hundreds Hall, how would he know that the Hall would still be standing after Caroline’s death? How did he know that it wouldn’t be sold or razed to make way for more council houses? It just doesn’t hang together for me.

      I enjoyed the book, but think it could have been so much better if Waters had included a few more scenes to resolve these things.

  18. John,

    Interesting you say it would be more gripping knowing from the outset that Faraday is involved. Don’t Booker judges read the books twice, in which case on the second reading they would know that?

    Otherwise, it sounds enjoyable but not great literature, which is no bad thing to be – unless that is you’re up for the Booker.

    You really should give Turn of the Screw a try by the way, along with The Aspern Papers (which it’s often packaged with) it’s a superb novella.

    • Deb said,

      I’m glad you mentioned The Aspern Papers. I know there have been comparisons made between The Little Stranger and The Turn of the Screw, but I think the comparisons with The Aspern Papers are just as apt, given Farraday’s desire for Hundreds Hall which makes him obsessive about marrying Caroline.

      • Well, I was planning to read it anyway (even with the spoilers, I saw the warning too late), Kevin had previously convinced me to do so. But, with an Aspern Papers comparison it’s definitely on my to be read list.

      • Deb said,

        I guess I’m just spoiler central on this post!

        Sorry ’bout that!

  19. I think it’ll survive Deb, to be honest anything suitable for Booker consideration should still be a rewarding read even if spoilered.

  20. Deb said,

    I’m in the States and the Booker just doesn’t have quite the same ability to move readers as it does across the pond. Perhaps if The Little Stranger were an Oprah Book Club selection…

    (ducks!)

  21. Chester said,

    I’m surprised that so many seem to think that Faraday was behind it all. When I read it I thought that each Ayre created their own ghost, until Caroline, who was killed by the vengeful projection of Faraday.

    I have since read an interview with Waters where she claims that Faraday is only unreliable because he can’t appreciate the possible supernatural aspects of the events. She claimed he wasn’t lying to the readers.

    I think it a good read but not completely realized.

  22. Sam said,

    Sounds like a good read. Though do wish they’d used the indefinite article in the title rather than the definite one: ‘A Little Stranger’ sounds much more lovely and ambiguous.

  23. John Self said,

    Candia McWilliam thought of that one already, Sam. I read her novel years ago but can’t remember much about it except that it concerned a pregnancy and possibly the trials of parenthood. If only I’d paid more attention.

  24. nico said,

    Hey John, did you hear? Maybe you could put Müller’s novel on top (the one I told you about a while ago The land of Green plums, or The appointment), in your series of Hoffman’s translation, now that she’s got it!! I’m so happy, this is my favorite writer. Rarely the best coincide with the ones that deserve it, but this is a matter of polemic discussion. Hope you’re well

  25. Colette Jones said,

    Even the ghost was not intentional when Sarah Waters started the book. She has stated that it came to her part way through to add a ghost. I like to think the Henry James knew whether madness or the supernatural was at play in The Turn of the Screw but left it for readers to decide. In contrast, I don’t feel that Sarah Waters really knows which way she meant it, and it’s more of an accident than a deliberate ambiguity.

  26. [...] by a mainframe computer buried deep in a fortified bunker.” . . . John Self finds himself enjoying Sarah Waters’ new novel: “I’d read her last two (also Booker shortlisted) novels, Fingersmith and The Night Watch, and [...]

  27. kirsty said,

    It’s interesting reading the comments here. I really wanted this book to have a non supernatural explanation, mostly because “oh, it was a ghost all along” really annoys me as a plot device. And human psychology is, as far as I’m concerned, far more interesting than anything paranormal. But, as Deb says above, there were just too many things in this book that I couldn’t buy Faraday having managed to pull off so I was left with the idea that at least some of it was supposed to be a ‘real’ ghost and rather ambivalent about the whole book. I liked so much about the book – setting, characters, ideas, writing – but it left me nonplussed.

  28. Patti Abbott said,

    I think Ayres is the source of all the problems here, but my problem is it conscious maliciousness or is it some otherwordly demon he sets into motion through his jealousy. Perhaps something dating from his childhood.
    Did anyone take that away? That he might not even be aware that the harm came from his unconscious mind.

  29. Patti Abbott said,

    Sorry I said Ayres and I mean Dr. Farraday.

  30. Carol said,

    Well I just finished reading it at one this morning (my normal bed-time being 10 PM!) and I was very eager to hear what others have to say so I am thrilled to have found this web site. I was hoping to discover more about the ambiguous ending. It seems the consensus is that the doc dun it.

    Earlier I had read an interview with Sarah Waters in which she talked about the Josephine Tey novels – Sarah Waters deliberately gave her maid the name of Betty, who was the working-class false accuser of “The Franchise Affair”. She thought that the first Betty had been treated somewhat cavalierly because of her class, and wanted to redress things with her book. So I was looking for Betty to somehow triumph (and maybe be the instigator) although that didn’t really happen. I also started thinking about possible allusions to other books, especially Agatha Christie’s “Murder of Roger Ackroyd” where the doctor narrator is revealed at the end to be the murderer – so I did have that in my mind as I read. The book also reminded me of the post-war English movie comedy “Kind Hearts and Coronets” where the narrator bumps off several members of an aristocratic family so he may inherit the family fortune. The movie ends with the narrator in jail, awaiting his fate. Sorry for the spoilers to these works, if you haven’t read or seen them.

  31. Helen said,

    Can I have it both ways? A ghost and a vengeful Dr Faraday at the end, when he reakises he is to lose ‘his’ house. I just can’t see how he was responsible for the haunting and for it all to be made up by him, just makes the story poitless. Mind you, I really enjoyed the book, which, for me, had echoes of Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘Last September’. Did anyone else find the changes in narrative (in ‘The LittleStranger’) a little sudden? Particularly, the child-biting scene. I agree that the ending was the weakest part of the book.

  32. John Self said,

    Yes you can have it both ways, Helen! Probably a wise line to tread. I haven’t read The Last September but I do have her The Death of the Heart on my shelves, and I loved one of her stories, ‘Dead Mabelle’, which I read earlier this year.

    I suspect The Little Stranger will be the subject of many more arguments and interpretations when it is featured on Channel 4’s new book club next year.

  33. Roma said,

    (NB – Big Spoiler Alert]
    Well, I’ve just finished the book. I started off thinking how slow it was, and then found it very difficult to put down. I think I realised that it was the narrator, Dr. Faraday, behind all the incidents after his talk with Dr. Seeley about potergeists and phantasms, where that other Doctor does actually talk about ‘living ghosts’ and unconscious processes. The narrator himself points out at this juncture that the earlier incident with Gyp happened after the new neighbour’s brother in law had rejected Caroline, and so Caroline may have been the cause. Yet the new neighbour had just put the narrator firmly in his place, and it’s the new neighbour’s daughter who suffers when Gyp bites her cheek. It was at this point that it occurred to me that the narrator was behind all the inexplicable incidents so far. Rod gets committed, Mrs. Ayres hangs herself, and Caroline goes over the bannisters soon after each of them rejects or belittles or dismisses the narrator. It is, furthermore the narrator who puts down Gyp, who has Rod committed, and who sets up the circumstances in which Mrs. Ayres can kill herslf (how on earth WAS Caroline supposed to stay awake all night to watch her). The narrator’s self loathing, intermittent feelngs of hatred for the family, for their class generally (witness his comment about the accent of the Doctor who removed his patient’s appendix on the last fateful night) combined with the energy in Hundreds – energy to do with loss (the death of a child, the death of the upper classes, the recent war etc. etc.) and you have the makings of a murderous poltergeist. However I loved the way that you have to read to the final two words for the confirmation that it IS the narrator, (and he hasn’t got a clue that it is.) A great book.

    • Then again, maybe there reallly was a ghost who was responsible for all this. And carefully arranged things to frame the narrator as the responsible party, overlooking only a few details.

      Just a thought.

    • Rando said,

      Hoorah!

      Whole-heartedly in agreement with everything said above. I thought the ending was a cracker – the sight of this weirdly obsessed man, haunting and possessing this house all by and for himself. At the end he sees his reflection and he doesn’t even realise that the ghost is staring right back at him.

      As you say, Roma, a great book.

      • Ramona said,

        All the terrifying events at Hundreds Hall happen after Dr Faraday has been angry or extremely upset and as a result had a sleepless night, or bad dreams. This is made most explicit just before Caroline’s death when he has the ‘vision’ of himself walking up to Hundreds then awakes in his car, but each serious disaster is preceded by him having a disturbed night. Supressed anger, repressed sexuality? His shadow-self could be the little stranger (which grew from the moment he took the acorn – itself a seed – from the wall as a child)

  34. Adam said,

    I really enjoyed it even if it didn’t all tidy up neatly.

    All the little noises and marks were pretty chilling.

    And it was truly frightening to watch Faraday stalk Caroline.

    I wonder if Faraday’s electro-shock machine caused those burn marks.

  35. literarylunchbox said,

    I was convinced that Dr. Farraday was the little stranger – and now that I read Ramona’s post, I am even more convinced. I found the book to be very well-written, the characters clearly drawn and very compelling. I had great sympathy for everyone. Half way through, I did think that Dr. Farraday was more than a little obtuse, but blamed it on his rigidly conventional mindset, class consciousness and doctorly “I know best” self-regard. By the end, it was clear that Dr. Farraday was no more thinking clearly than Roderick or Mrs. Ayres.

  36. PaperLiger said,

    What amazes me is how many people don’t want the novel to be a simple ghost story. Perhaps some of these readers, who may not trouble themselves with Low Art like horror films, aren’t aware of just how many tropes are being hauled out here? The sequence during Faraday’s dream, in which his vengeful spirit rockets through the night up to the hall, is like something from a straight to dvd horror starring Robert Englund. Faraday’s fractured spirit is the supernatural Little Stranger, the ‘dark germ’ of which is sewn through his class envy motivated gouging of the acorn as a child. That’s it. Of course healthy discussion is great, but some comments seem to be deperate to create meaning where there is none. It’s OK to like a ghost story. Don’t worry.
    I enjoyed the book, but did think there were a few too many avenues that were begun and not resolved or re-visited. I read too much into earlier events in the book, and found I was looking forward to pay-offs that never came. The photo where the maid’s face was caught in blurred movement, and so was un-identifible, was something I thought was going to lead to some spooky thrills. But, alas, did not. Hmm…perhaps my low art comment indicates a degree of class consciousness I was previously unaware of? Watch out pointlessly overly described spinsters, part of me’s coming to knock and scribble.

  37. John Self said,

    Hi PaperLiger, and thanks for your comment.

    I think you’re right, there is a resistance to reading The Little Stranger as ‘simply’ a ghost story. For me this comes partly from the knowledge that if it is, then Waters has taken 500 pages to achieve the sort of effect that M.R. James could do in 20, and has therefore to some extent wasted my time. It also comes from the knowledge that in interviews, Waters makes it clear that she was some way into writing the novel, which for her was primarily about the social changes in Britain after the second world war, and that she found herself ‘stuck’, and only then decided to introduce a ghost story element. Of course that doesn’t mean that she didn’t then go back and rewrite the entire story, nor that the author has the final say on what a book is about. But it does tally with the theories of Faraday as the ‘ghost’ who is, consciously or otherwise, consumed with class envy for the Ayers and their status in Hundreds Hall.

  38. hellgirl said,

    i got it Faraday killed Caroline know one will say anything because of what the mental state her brother and mother where at so it was the perfect murder.

  39. hellgirl said,

    he couldn’t bare see Caroline leave him he was already counting the days and it sounded like he was already obsessed with her. this book had me wondering what happened with this story and suddenly i came with this conclusion

  40. Remember when Caroline reports her mother as saying: “the house knows all our weaknesses, and is testing them one by one.”? ALL our weaknesses, she says. Dr Seeley says “the little stranger” could be “A creature motivated by all the nasty impulses and hungers the conscious mind had hoped to keep hidden away: things like envy, and malice and frustration”. How many in that house felt envy and/or malice and/or frustration. Not just Dr Faraday I think. Caroline was certainly frustrated, so really were Mrs Ayres and Roderick. Is the poltergeist a metaphor for (or at least a symptom of) the angst brought about by social change? I don’t think any of the disasters brought about on Hundreds Hall were consciously or premeditatedly done – “the little stranger” is the “unconscious” mind unleashed. I think!

  41. nick said,

    Having just read the book, I think all the ghost stuff is absurd and adds nothing to the plot. It certainly never occurred to me for a second that Dr Faraday caused it all. It seems to me that the substance of the plot is Faraday’s obsessive attempt to ingratiate himself into a supposedly higher-status family, an attempt which falls entirely flat because they never have any real affection for or interest in him. He is never more than the local doctor who keeps finding excuses to visit them. The logical outcome would have been that they eventually ease him out of their life and he then tries to ingratiate himself somewhere else.

    • HI Nick, I’ve thought a lot about this novel – and heard Waters speak in person (not that she gave the plot away). If KFC will forgive a little self promotion you might like to see my posts on it here: http://whisperinggums.wordpress.com/?s=Sarah+Waters One is a review and the other a report of her talk. Anyhow, as I thought about it, I started coming to the conclusion that we should see the ghost or perhaps poltergeist as a metaphor for class anxiety/envy/etc AND that perhaps they were all responsible for releasing the spirits/energies that caused such destruction.

      • nick said,

        Yes, I know the ghost aspect is commonly explained as a metaphor, but if so it’s a very clumsy one. Ghosts are often seen as malicious but not in such a precise sense as you suggest – anxious, envious etc. And certainly not envious of another class. Also, a lot of the incidents involved – like the S scribbles and the ringing bells – not only have nothing specifically to do with class envy but are embarrassingly ludicrous in contrast with the deft realism of the rest of the book.

  42. I agree that there is a degree of murkiness (clumsiness perhaps) to it all. After all, why else would be all be spending so much time trying to work it out. The dead-baby related stuff – the Sss etc – certainly needs a bit of thinking. BUT my reading is that we are not talking about ghosts – ie the spirit of particular dead people – but poltergeists which can be negative energies not necessarily related to a particular ghost. In that sense – the way Dr Seeley describes it – I can see it working, whereas when I saw it as specific ghosts I couldn’t make it work much at all.

  43. Sheryl said,

    I finished reading this book two nights ago, and have thought about it since, then tonight, I started to read it a second time. After beginning to read it a second time, it seems to be bursting with information regarding Dr. Faraday’s emotions and intents and dreamings toward Hundreds Hall.
    I thought this narrative was just describing the Faraday character upon the first reading, but it is far more than that. This is a great book. Give it a second chance, it will be a different book. I have never read a book before that needed to be read a second time in order to fully appreciate it.
    Sarah Waters is so ******** good at what she does, words cannot describe it.

    • Yes, Sheryl, that is how I started to feel. I didn’t fully reread it but I flicked back through my marginalia to identify points and it started to fall more into place. Like you I think there is more to it than is obvious on first reading. Maybe that’s a flaw? Or is it a failure in we readers?

  44. Sheryl said,

    whisperinggums, it may be a flaw due to the fact that most readers don’t read it a second time and may not ever get the full effect.
    Yet for it so be successful, we readers must want to reread it upon coming upon the end. The bells, the parking space by the river pond, and many others take on more portending reflectoions the the reader the second time aroung.
    Gyp, was first, being the weakest, because he was a dog, and them Roderick was effectively taken permanently out of the picture. Then Mrs. Ayres, the next weakest link in this, the Ayres family way. Finally, Caroline, the strongest of the Old Guard, was defeated.

    This is a Great Book!!!
    Sheryl.

  45. Clea said,

    I raced through this book, gripped by the story, and like other readers who have posted here realised about 3/4 of the way through that Faraday was the source of the Poltergeist. Then, having finished the book I went back through it and found the “clues”- which with hindsight did seem glaringly obvious.
    The key passage I think is the one where Poltergeists are referred to as manifestations of a troubled unconscious by Seeley. He mentions the adolescent housemaid, as a possible source of the trouble for example- but of course it doesn’t occur to him that the Poltergeist could be a manifestation of Faraday himself- or rather Faraday’s unhappiness and innate feelings of inferiority. I think it’s important that we see Faraday as a young boy at the beginning of the book actually physically taking a piece of the house (the acorn which is later thrown on the fire and found in the ashes- a link to the scorch marks?) as it marks the beginning of his obsession with the house and his need to own it.
    In fact, I think the Little Stranger is Faraday as that little boy, creeping through the corridors, coveting the house and driving its occupants out so he can possess it entirely.

  46. Clea said,

    Ah. Looking back through the posts I know see that the same points have already been made, and far more eloquently.
    I really should stop speed-reading both books and forums! haha…

    • Libby said,

      I know this is a drive-by comment, but Clea, don’t put yourself down. I never thought, until reading your comment, that it could have been Faraday as a *little boy* that was causing the problems. Makes sense, given the pitter patter of feet.

      • John Self said,

        And don’t put yourself down, Libby – drive-by comments are very welcome!

  47. Renee said,

    As someone who doesn’t read horror/thriller/suspense books or even mysteries I find the poltergiest idea plain silly. It seems clear that Faraday had ‘black outs’ and/or memory loss. For instance, he has ‘violent dreams’ and then learns that that night bad things happened at Hundreds – we hear his account second hand and then we are back to him ‘waking up one or two hours later’ from ‘bad dreams’ and ‘blissfully ignorant’ – I bet! He started those fires. I think most nights he was there roaming around the house at night – he opened doors and moved furniture, etc.

    And who’s to say that, independently of each other, Betty and Faraday were not doing their best to destroy a family they hated – ? Why trust Betty’s statement about when Caroline was killed – how do we know that Betty didn’t push her down the stairs (although I do believe Faraday, in flesh & blood was there)?

    However, if these types of books are usually explained by poltergiests & negative energy, then maybe that’s all it was – but, it seems so silly to me! And not interesting.

  48. Kay Smith said,

    I thought it was a waste of time. Lots of potentially good plot development with no follow through (the blurred photograph, for instance. Sort of like (forgive me) TV’s LOST. However, LOST was interesting whereas this story gave me a headache. I think she was trying to be “artsy” with her ending, and perhaps she just got lazy. First and last book of hers that I will read.

  49. Sheryl said,

    I read this book because I have read Tipping the Velvet, and of course, Fingersmith, and kept on reading it after a slow start. When I finished it, I immediately started reading it again with different eyes… This is a great novel…

  50. Sheryl said,

    happy that some of you have found this novel……..

  51. Simon T said,

    Wow, this was all so fascinating, but has befuddled me completely… I thought it was Dr F behind everything for a long time, but when there was no confession (even narrative confession) at the end, I thought I’d got it wrong. And so many things he couldn’t have done.. burn on the ceiling? scratches and bites on the mother’s body? I was left rather disappointed by the ending, but I thought the writing before that was very good indeed. And I might try some MR James now… with the lights firmly on.

  52. tom folland said,

    (spoiler alert) I liked the ambiguity of the ending, especially since so many novels leave you bored by the last chapter as you know exactly where it is all going, and everything is neatly sewn up. When the monster is revealed it is no longer scary. Isn’t it the nature of a haunting that you are never sure of what exactly is or has happened? I was chilled, especially when reading Faraday’s description of catching himself, “baffled and longing” in the reflection of the cracked glass. Was he the ghost, I suddenly wondered? When Caroline cried out “You!” just before her death, was she referring to Faraday? She already knew it was supposed to be her little sister–seeing her ghost would have not generated that response. Perhaps. When I discovered Faraday had spent the night outside in his car, I wondered if he was merely stalking Caroline, and it was he whom she saw, as either Ghost or stalker. But in the end, his wandering the halls of the home, imagining its original plaster, putting down buckets to catch the water… was he now himself possessed by the same madness that that driven the Ayreses to death? Was he the Ghost? or merely a obsessive lover? Waters brilliantly, I think, leaves it spookily as unclear as the twilit mansion rooms themselves.

  53. Kristin said,

    SPOILERS GALORE
    I LOVED this book and the ambiguity. I’m so happy to find this thread because I’m dying to hash out the ambiguities with others. So, even though this is probably too late, here’s my views: I disagree with John Self’s conclusion that it was Faraday all along. I think the best reading is this: Dr. Faraday ACTUALLY murdered Caroline, and the poltergeist provided an alibi. The rest of the events were caused by a poltergeist with a single source, and the source was Caroline.

    Here’s how I get there:

    1. I don’t think there is any ambiguity at all as to the fact that Faraday was the cause of Caroline’s death. The only ambiguity for me is whether Faraday actually murdered her or whether Faraday’s poltergeist was responsible. If Faraday’s poltergeist was responsible, then that leads to two possible conclusions: his poltergeist was responsible all along for all the events, or there are multiple poltergeists. Both of those conclusions are unsatisfying to me. The first is unsatisfying because the poltergeist destroyed portions of the house that Faraday loved, and Faraday could get what he wanted without driving everyone from the house. Therefore, the poltergeist was not acting in a way that furthered Faraday’s unconscious motives. The second is unsatisfying for a number of reasons, but I reject it mainly because Caroline said, “YOU” when faced with her murderer. The poltergeist had never presented itself in a way that would lead to such a response. Therefore, I conclude that Caroline actually faced her murderer and that Faraday actually murdered her. I tend to think that he repressed this memory. It makes sense that he would murder her because he was so filled with rage and he was so controlling. Also, there were multiple hints to his essentially violent nature throughout the book. And I love that the ghost story provides the alibi.

    2. Despite the fact that Faraday is a murderer, I believe that he is an absolutely reliable narrator. I love this about the book; that the murder is absolutely reliable. I think that he knows that he murdered her, but doesn’t actually remember doing this. But even if we accept Faraday as actually reliable, one thing that we have to consider is whether CAROLINE is a reliable narrator. Remember, most of the book consists of Dr. Faraday recounting stories told to him by Caroline. I ultimately conclude that Caroline has given a factually accurate account to Faraday, although she has not told him her true feelings about anything.

    3. I think Faraday got it absolutely correct when he accused Caroline of causing all the events to allow her to sell the house to get the money to start a new life. Before she is murdered, she gets everything that she wants. And Caroline has a strong motive for hating everyone in the house — she was never loved by her mother. Also, she is a repressed lesbian at a time when she would not be able to come out if she remained in her present circumstances, but might be able to live a free life elsewhere. It is possible that Caroline ACTUALLY caused all the events in the house (not her poltergeist), but I reject that for two reasons: one, she wouldn’t have been able to cause the dog to bite the child, and two, Dr. Faraday actually witnessed the poltergeist acting with the scratch on her mother’s breast near the pond. Those seem to have supernatural causes. Therefore, I think that it was Caroline’s unconscious that became unhinged and caused all of this mayhem. I think that Caroline might have even known this. I love the fact that her brother took responsibility for this. This is a rich and very satisfying interpretation for me.

    4. The only thing that makes this unsatisfying for me is that it was essentially suggested by the misogynistic Seely. If this is the best, most accurate interpretation, it was an odd choice that the biggest misogynist in the book was the wisest character.

    If anyone is reading this, what do you think of this theory?

    • John Self said,

      Thanks for your comments, Kristin! I’m afraid it’s almost a year since I read the book so I can’t respond usefully, but perhaps others will…

    • Janet said,

      I have listened to the book read by Simon Vance more than once. I also got the feeling that it was Caroline. She was the one that benefited the most. She is also the one that brought all the things about Roderick and her mother to Faraday’s attention first. Betty also said there was something in the house before Faraday was really part of the so called strange things. Other accounts are told from Caroline’s version of what happened. I do think he killed Caroline but I think he did it out of anger because he realized he had been used and his dream feel apart. Caroline at one point asks Faraday for help with her family early in the book. Caroline herself admits she has always been a horrid person listen or read carefully. What about her statement about not wanting to go with anyone after the funeral because she may not show enough grief or to much? This is a very odd statement to make if your mother just died is such a horrible way. I did hate the ending I don’t know if I will read another Sarah Waters because of it.

  54. Rebecca said,

    Kristin, I’m curious to know how you came around to the idea of Caroline being a repressed lesbian? Was it her indifference towards Dr.Faraday, coupled with the fun she seemed to be having with her old friend Brenda at the hospital party? As well as her strong, almost masculine physical appearance? I never thought of her that way, and would love to hear your thoughts. Or anyone else’s for that matter!

  55. Karen said,

    I thought there were mundane hints throughout that Caroline might be a lesbian. Her appearance, her lack of concern for grooming, (her mother’s horror at her unshaven legs) or any type of fashion style, her cool acceptance of her ‘spinsterhood’. Yes, all cliches, I know! But it’s likely that, for me, the strongest hint was not in fact contained within this work, but based on the author’s previous form.

    I expected a lesbian element to the denouement, and found myself greatly relieved that this was not the case. I liked the ambiguity around Caroline’s interior life.

  56. Cara said,

    I’ve just finished the book – how disappointing it was not to have everything neatly explained, though I’ve been fascinated to read through all the comments here. I thought Dr Faraday’s narration was honest in that he thought he was writing everything down as he saw it. He’d obviously been a bright child, a hardworking student, etc. to get where he had, and doctors must be accurate and meticulous in their work – although of course they can become as unhinged as the next person if things don’t go their way. Living alone, isolated, loveless, almost friendless, things were not looking good for him, though he was kept busy in his work.

    Just to throw another theory into the pot – I was convinced from early on that the “ghost” was going to be his mother. Called Susan.

  57. Lana said,

    It was the doc tor, i’m sure. When he starts ro treat Then everything starts happening. He is proberly working with the maid. He hates and loves them and egen he, at the party, realizes that he never can be a real part of the family his anger starts to work. I think that Betty is sound the small stuff like the ghost and he do the killing. In the end, he is alone and waters gives hon away by telling us about his reflexion in the broken window. I Loves this book, it occupied me for three days ! ( I updated this comment since my autocorrect on iphone did a Great job….. Sorry)

    • Bo Wiley said,

      Anyone notice that the last letter of each chapter is an anagram of ‘Faraday was the ghost ‘ ?
      Thought not.


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