Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, April 9, 2010

Book Review - The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters’ Booker shortlisted fifth novel takes place in 1947, when Britain was in the process of healing its wounds after the war and when the old, aristocratic families were crumbling faster than the manor houses in which they lived.

It is to one of these beautiful-but-decaying manor houses that Dr. Faraday, a middle-aged bachelor with a medical practice in rural Warwickshire, is unexpectedly called.

When Faraday arrives at the house, known as Hundreds Hall, he finds his patient is not a member of the family as he’d expected, but a fourteen-year-old servant girl named Betty, instead. Faraday realizes immediately that Betty is malingering, and though she, herself, admits as much, she does tell Faraday that there is something evil in the house, something definitely to be feared.

Strangely, though Faraday is certainly not of the aristocracy himself and he is not the Hundreds’ family physician (they find it more economical to simply not take ill) this is not Faraday’s first visit to Hundreds Hall. His own mother had been employed as a nursery maid at Hundreds, and Faraday had, as a child, attended an Empire Fete at the house, when Hundreds was in its full bloom of Georgian glory. While his mother helped with the washing up, one of the maids smuggled the ten-year-old Faraday upstairs and the boy immediately fell in love with the house, even stealing a decorative acorn from the molding as a keepsake.

Now, some thirty years later, though Faraday is appalled by the decay and decrepitude to which Hundreds Hall has fallen, he seems no less enchanted to be inside the house once again. After seeing to Betty, he gratefully takes tea and cake with Hundreds’ owners, the dignified, widowed Mrs. Ayres and her two children, twentysomething Roderick, a wounded RAF veteran, who struggles to keep Hundreds going on the meager and dwindling income provided from its dairy farm and Caroline, his slightly older, sturdy, capable, no-nonsense sister. Despite the fact that the Ayreses are trying to hold onto the "old ways" even in the face of change, they are, for the most part, a charming family and one with whom the reader enjoys spending time.

It just so happens that Dr. Faraday wants very much to test a new form of electrical therapy that promises to strengthen muscles and strengthening muscles is one thing Roderick Ayers needs very badly. When the Ayres family tells Dr. Faraday that they couldn’t possibly pay for the treatments, Faraday offers his services free of charge. He wants only to write a scientific paper regarding the course of the treatment and the efficacy of his machine. When Roderick, spurred on by his mother and sister, reluctantly accepts, Faraday becomes a regular visitor to Hundreds Hall and he gets to know the Ayers family quite well.

It would be beyond cruel for me to reveal the plot of this engrossing and masterfully written book, but it gives nothing away to tell you that the incident involving Betty is only the first of many mishaps and tragedies involving the residents of Hundreds Hall. And with each new tragedy, Waters twists the tension of her novel ever tighter. She’s definitely taken a leaf from Henry James’ masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, but she’s twisted that leaf just as she’s twisted the plot of her novel and she’s made it all her own.

The narrator of The Little Stranger is none other than Dr. Faraday, himself, a very literal minded, unimaginative soul and one certainly not given to the flights of fancy that strike each member of the Ayres family, even the ever-so-practical Caroline. The further into the book we read, however, the more frustrated we become with Faraday. We begin to wonder just how much his view of things is tainted by his dullness and we ask ourselves just how reliable a narrator he really is.

The Little Stranger is a beautifully constructed book, wonderfully controlled, wonderfully (and genuinely) creepy, and replete with sensory detail. And though she refuses to spell everything out and tie every loose end, Waters does play fair with her readers. Those who pay attention will come away from the book feeling satisfied, though definitely uneasy, and that uneasiness will be a nagging uneasiness. This is definitely not a "comfort" book nor are its effects easily shaken.

I turned the final page with a huge "Wow!" and that’s something I rarely do. The Little Stranger may be Sarah Waters at the height of her powers as a writer. It’s definitely a perfectly written book, yet one that’s so "old-fashioned enjoyable" as well.


Recommended: Yes, especially for those who love a bit of mystery and psychological horror.

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