Sarah Waters has legions of fans, but I wasn’t expecting much from The Little Stranger, and so I wasn’t disappointed. It’s quite an enjoyable Gothic/ghost tale, but it’s a bit too long for itself and even the faultless narration by Simon Vance didn’t prevent my attention from wandering a bit.
The story is set in rural Warwickshire, in post-war Britain, where the Bolshie Labour government is taxing the aristocrats out of their Stately Homes so that they can fund the National Health Service. The narrator, Dr Faraday, is conflicted about this because as a working-class lad made good, he is conscious of his origins but likes hanging about with Posh People. He becomes the family doctor of the troubled family on the Hundreds Estate, where Roderick is physically and mentally damaged by his time in the RAAF, and where Caroline has had to leave a potentially more interesting life in London to come home and look after him and her widowed mother Mrs Ayres. (But Caroline is stoic about this, as befits her unmarried status and Roderick’s status as a war hero. Oh yes, and also befitting her Responsibility to The Estate).
The catalyst for Faraday’s first visit is the mysterious illness of the servant Betty. (The house is falling to bits, the weeds are miles high, but gosh, they can’t possibly do without a servant, can they?) Faraday, quite capable of patronising people from the same class origin as himself) discovers that Betty thinks there is a Presence in the house. She is only 14 and she wants to go home, but Dr F dismisses it all as nonsense and promises her that he won’t tell anyone that she was faking as long as she gets back to work. Which she does, and becomes A Loyal Retainer thereafter, but she retains the right to mutter about The Presence, of course).
After this forewarning, the Strange Things start to happen. A placid dog attacks a small child. There are noises. Marks on the walls. Moving objects. And then a fire. When Roderick finally cracks up, he is treated more respectfully than Betty, but it’s a dubious honour. He gets packed off to an expensive ‘rest home’.
It is at this point that the sceptical reader starts to question proceedings. All these weird things are reported, not seen. Is Roderick deranged, pretending to be deranged, or is he being deluded by a malevolent person who might be Caroline, Betty, or even the good Dr F? Is there some advantage to scaring off the others, leaving one of them in sole possession of The Estate? Or is there really a poltergeist? Really?? Really???
Faraday’s motives get murkier when, having offered his scornful opinions about Caroline’s unattractiveness and poor dress sense, he now finds he fancies her. He doesn’t ever say so, but any reasonably alert reader will realise that marrying Caroline is his entrée into the gentry. (We Australians always find this class-consciousness stuff incomprehensible. We can be snobs too, but not about obsolete pedigrees). However Caroline – although we suspect that she sees the benefit of Faraday’s income on the weeds and the cracking plaster – gives off rather strong touch-me-not signals- which might mean she is gay, or it might mean that she thinks Faraday is a Creep. (As some readers are also starting to do).
More Strange Things happen and the reader still wading through the padding might take a mild interest in who benefits from the mayhem. Or might not.
I was bemused to see that this book was nominated for the Booker. It’s mildly entertaining light reading, but there isn’t really any point to it. No less a person than Hilary Mantel said it was ‘gripping’ (really??) and that it combines ‘spookiness with sharp social observation’ but really, the characters are such clichés I can’t believe Mantel was being anything other than kind-hearted. Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green and Anthony Powell have the bases covered on class consciousness and it’s been a common theme in BritLit since Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice. What is the point of ‘sharp social observation’ of the mid 20th century, other than to reinforce class stereotypes? Was there some other significant theme that I’ve overlooked?
Author: Sarah Waters
Title: The Little Stranger
Narrated by Simon Vance
Publisher: Penguin Audio, 2009
Source: Kingston Library
Available from Fishpond: The Little Stranger