Friday, October 26, 2012

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

My Rating: 4.0 / 5.0

AmazonRating: 3.60 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.45 / 5.00

I read this book as part of a Read Along organized by The Estella Society as part of the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril VII Challenge at Stainless Steel Droppings.

Hundreds Hall is just outside the small town of Lidcote in Warwickshire, England. When he was a young boy, Dr Faraday caught a rare glimpse of the splendor inside, something that he would never normally see because he was the son of one of the maids. He became entranced by the house and its occupants, the Ayres family. Many years later, World War II has been cruel to the landed gentry and Hundreds is now in rapid decline. Now one of the local doctors, Faraday is called to the Hall to see a sick maid, and is horrified by the state of the house and its grounds.

As he becomes a trusted friend of the family, he is present when a very strange event occurs, injuring the daughter of the local nouveaux riches. While he can find perfectly normal reasons to explain away this tragic accident, it becomes increasingly obvious that otherworldly forces are acting upon the Hall and its inhabitants.

This is the first time I have read one of Sarah Waters’ books, but I can understand why it was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. The writing is excellent and evocative, recreating the social climate in the period just after World War II very well. We forget now that the War brought a huge change in the social structure of Great Britain. The landed classes could no longer maintain their lifestyle because of stringent tax reforms introduced by the post-War labor government, but also because the working class were no longer happy to take live-in employment with the associated minimal freedom. So, robbed of both their servants and the money required to maintain their estates, many families sold off their land for housing developments or opened their homes and / or grounds for the newly mobile public.

The first quarter or third of the book is used to introduce the main players in our story. Dr Faraday is a rather adventurous, forward-thinking man of science, willing to try new techniques and apply new knowledge. However, he is barely making a living, because so many of the locals do not trust a doctor from a working class background and prefer to use one of his competitors, and also because he has so much debt from his long years of training. He has no true place in society because he is rejected by both classes: the working class think he has risen above his station whilst the landed class see him as an upstart. He is intensely lonely.

The Ayres are also social outcasts, but in their case it is because they cannot continue their role in local life. They are reduced to employing only one maid and a part-time cook and can barely heat the Hall through the winter. The building is slowly collapsing around them and the grounds are a mess. Even their farm is falling behind the times because they cannot afford to install the electric milking machines needed for them to sell their milk. Mrs Ayres tries to maintain an air of gentility, although she is still grieving the deaths of her husband and her young daughter, Susan, almost thirty years ago. Caroline Ayres is not pretty enough to attract a wealthy husband and has spent the last few years nursing her brother Roderick, who was horribly disfigured by begin burnt during the war. Caroline yearns desperately to be free of the Hall and to lead her own life, while Roderick is consumed with the responsibility of being the man of the house, trying to keep the family afloat financially. When we first meet them the Ayres are just about keeping things together, but this is a fragile illusion.

Of course, there is an event that causes the family members to begin to unravel, each becoming increasingly obsessed with their own particular demons. This leads both Mrs Ayres and Caroline to become more dependent upon Dr Faraday, a role that he relishes. However, his insistence upon rational explanations for all the things that they experience actually makes matters worse and leads to the most tragic outcome imaginable. This makes him a very unreliable narrator, and by the end of the book I found him really rather unpleasant and selfish in his persistent need to maintain the lie that nothing was wrong at the Hall. His desire to keep his position as a friend of the family was horribly tangled with his need for acceptance and he became blind to anything that would allow the future to deviate from his vision. In many ways he is the ‘Little Stranger’ of the title, insinuating himself into the family and the bringing nothing but grief and horror.   

The horror itself is very well done. The dilapidated house is almost cliché, with its squeaky doors and flapping curtains, but the writing is so good that the atmosphere is entirely believable and very chilling. The supernatural elements are kept to a minimum and yet there are touches that will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. However, many of the most horrific things are done by real, living people, and they will make you very uncomfortable as well.

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