Wednesday, 19 May 2010
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
The Little Stranger was my introduction to the author Sarah Waters. I love a good ghost story which is what originally drew me to this book plus it was also short-listed for the Man Booker prize.
Dr Faraday, a local village doctor, befriends the Ayres; an upper-class family of three who live in a decaying Georgian mansion. Throw in a dead child and some bumps in the night and you have quite a simple story to fill this book of 500 plus pages.
The book is set just after World War II when many social changes were taking place in Britain. The past few years had seen the decline of the British aristocracy and the break-up of many family estates, at the same time the welfare system was being overhauled and the introduction of the National Health Service (NHS) was shortly to be introduced. The Ayres family represent this decline of the upper classes, living in a huge mansion which they cannot possibly afford to keep. They sit around in one of the few rooms which is heated reminiscing about the parties they used to hold and gossip about past servants who worked there. It put me in mind a little of 'Great Expectations' the way they all sat with the wallpapers literally falling from the walls, surrounded by decay.
Dr Faraday is someone who has very much taken advantage of the loss of social restrictions, he has not come from a rich family but he has managed to go to university and become a doctor. Yet he still looks towards the Ayres family and longs to be a part of that life perhaps because of his insecurity over his poor background. He visits them whenever he can and has aspirations of somehow perhaps living there. He is in denial over the future of this family and the house.
I feel a little let down by this book, it had so much promise but ultimately it fell a little flat. I sympathised a great deal with the Ayres family and with the predicament they found themselves in but I did not feel sorry for them. While they were barely able to afford to heat their mansion and only two servants (gasp!) Dr Faraday was visiting families that were losing children to childhood diseases or other families barely able to afford the medical fees for life saving operations. Honestly I don’t dislike rich people but I think if I had been alive at the time I would have been very much behind the welfare changes being made.
As regards to the ‘ghostly’ element they could be compared to the events in The House on Haunted Hill by Shirley Jackson or the Turning of the Screw by Henry James and any story of that Gothic genre of thriller. I was genuinely spooked out by these books. But I was not even mildly scared by the Little Stranger and I read this while Chris was working nights so I was all on my own. I think the problem here was that the book is read in the first person by Dr Faraday who was not present during any of ghostly encounters which, by the way, did not even start till around page 300. So all the ghost activity is heard 2nd or even 3rd hand which hardly makes for great suspense.
The real talent in this book comes from Sarah Waters writing, I was very impressed. the descriptions of the house and the characters are well crafted. There was a sense of atmosphere as Dr Faraday tries desperately to come up with a logical explanation for everything. My favourite part of the book was at the beginning when Dr Faraday reminisces about his first visit to the house as a child. This summer day scene is built up so vividly of a house full of servants and opulence with all the villagers enjoying themselves in the garden. In the next chapter Dr Faraday gets a shock when he visits as an adult and sees the decline, the overgrown gardens and plaster falling from the walls. This really set the scene for the whole book and I cannot praise the writing enough for this.
There are some excellent commentaries on class in this book but the ghostly element, for me anyway, fell flat on its face. Aside from the last line in the book which I did find slightly chilling. Not a bad novel which was extremely well crafted, I would not hesitate to read any of her other books.