October 5, 2009
Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger
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.
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