Tuesday, 16 December 2014
The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters
The story starts with the narrator's childhood self being star-struck at the imposingly grand home of the local landed gentry. The impressive Captain Ayres and his handsome wife are handing out medals to the local rustic children on the sweeping lawn of their red-brick estate. The narrator mentions a subsequent tragedy that befalls the Eyres; the loss of their young daughter to illness which causes them afterwards to retire from public life.
Fast forward a decade or three, and the young narrator of humble origin is now the strapping Dr. Faraday, local boy done well and now the area's favourite medical practitioner slash bachelor. A chance call out to Hundreds, the house that so impressed him during his youth, makes him both nostalgic and curious. On his call out to treat a young housemaid, he finds the frail Mrs Ayres is still living there, still handsome despite her age, with her two grown children, born after the death of the first. Caroline is masculine and practical; she wears unbecoming clothes, is no stranger to household chores and spends much of her time trudging around the crumbling estate with her beloved but elderly dog Gyp. We get it; a character in a novel that has dared to be ugly. No need to keep going on about it, narrator. Roderick, the brother, is a disfigured but celebrated ex-serviceman with lingering war wounds and is left the unhappy task of managing the family's increasingly desperate affairs. Dr. Faraday becomes something of a family friend and is frequently up at Hundreds on social visits, taking tea, dispensing advice, wielding his stethoscope.
During one such visit, a party of sorts to cheer up the Ayres' and to throw spinsterish Caroline into the path of the County's eligible males (just like old times), a freak accident occurs that foreshadows the many tragedies that lie in the future of the Ayres and Hundreds. Overnight Hundreds goes from being a somewhat dilapidated relic to a dangerous and malevolent threat to its inhabitants. It's up to Doctor Faraday to keep the Ayres' safe and rational at a time when they think their house wants to drive them away.
I love a good ghost story. I love a good mystery. But the Little Stranger really can't make up its mind what it is, so it kind of dabbles a bit with both, therefore not really pulling either off to anyone's satisfaction. If the supernatural burns, noises, arson attacks, physical assaults and taunts were truly ghostly, the author really failed (for me) to build up any sense of dread, or fear or anything remotely chilling. I found myself simply shrugging off many of what I think were supposed to be key plot points. They just lacked the suspense and the drama of what could have been a terrifyingly tense haunting. The other explanation however; that the slow, persistent torture of the Ayres' by sounds and spooks is perpetrated by a much more corporeal individual is somewhat half arsed, and is kind of thrown in at the end...a sort of "It's a ghost...OR IS IT?!" not-quite-twist. What the author is suggesting makes no sense and doesn't fit in with the events of the plot...It could be a ghost, it could be a person- neither case really makes a particularly persuasive argument.
For a novel of 500 pages, it isn't half a slow burner. We see Dr. Faraday doggedly pursuing Caroline and they spend the novel in a mixture of awkward friendship and a confused, plutonic courtship. Faraday doesn't make a very gentlemanly suitor and seems much more enamoured of the house than his intended. As the house picks off its owners one by one, he stubbornly rationalises the incidents, explaining them away again and again despite the mounting evidence placed in front of him...
Personally, I found the novel to be lacking in plot, short on the chills that it promised and with a dully small cast of uninteresting characters. I can't say I warmed to any of them at all really, and never felt anything for them when they met their various fates. I couldn't muster anything for any of them besides a mild indifference. It's a shame really, as I do really like Waters' style of prose. I love her attention to detail and her ability to find the magic in the mundane. I was just disappointed to find that none of it really mattered in this particular book as the plot and the characters were so weak.