Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2017

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, narrated by Simon Vance

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).

BEWARE: SPOILERS

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
ISBN: 9780143144809
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Little Stranger

 


Responses

  1. I loved this book for delivering a very scary (to me) ghost story just when I wanted it, during October nights.

    • October? You mean for Halloween?
      I wonder if it’s been made into a film… I think it would spoil it if it were, because in the book, you don’t know whether something is really happening, or whether it’s Faraday, or someone else, telling the reader that it’s happened, leaving it to the reader to decide whether the event is true, or a lie, or the product of a character’s imagination.

      • I’m sorry I left such a brief and obscure reply last night; the keyboard in my computer has suddenly lost the use of several letters which is why I’m now replying on my phone. At any rate, I read two other books by Sarah Waters before this, and this is my favorite of hers. It was for one of Carl’s RIP challenges, and yes, during Halloween, so I was looking for a ghost story. Even though I can see where it may be contrived, I enjoyed the spooky elements, and was willing to go with the idea that the house was haunted. I guess it was the overall mood that appealed to me at the time.

        • One of the glorious joys of reading is that a book can be many things to different people and that it can be the right book at the right time:)
          BTW with the keyboard: a ‘sudden loss of several letters’ sometimes means it needs a cleaning. Try tipping it upside down and tapping it gently to dislodge any crumbs (if you nibble toast like I do) and then get a kid’s paintbrush and dust enthusiastically one by one between the keys and under the edges if you can. If there is a chance that the keys have got wet (if you sip coffee like I do), the tipping upside down should remove most of the moisture but you may need to apply the hairdryer. My keyboard died entirely when I knocked a G&T over it, but it dried out overnight and was fine the next day. (This was a trigger to tidy my desk, not a sign that I had already had too many G&Ts!)

          • Haha, Lisa, toast and G&Ts. Love it. You can also run one of those little handheld (dust buster) vacuum cleaners over the keyboard. I do that a couple of times a year.

            • I would do that too… if I remembered to charge up the dust-buster…

  2. I reviewed this book early in my blog, and in fact attended an author event with Sarah Waters. Like you I had mixed feelings about it, and am still a little bemused about the Booker thing. I guess though that I’d say it’s a little more than just about class – it’s about social change.

    I also thought Dr F was an “interesting” narrator who takes some thinking through. I think we are meant to see him in some more complex way – perhaps reflective of the social change issue.

    Finally, as I wrote in my post I thought there were two strands going on – the social and the psychic/psychological. But it’s so long since I read it that I can’t pull muck more together than that. I really liked Sarah Waters The night watch, which I think was made into a miniseries, but I’m not an aficionado.

    • I wasn’t so keen on The Night Watch but I liked Fingersmith. But yes, these are books that while good to read at the time, don’t really stay with you in the way that some other books do.

  3. When you think of the books set in England between the Wars where middle class people had servants – in the ‘William’ books his mother has a cook and a maid – the poor bloody servants must have been paid a pittance.

    • Yes, indeed, armies of women who were ‘dailies’, doing their own housework and then going out to do the housework of some other family…
      I wonder sometimes what the world would be like if the energy and intelligence of those undereducated women had been given the opportunity to flourish.


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