The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009) Riverhead (2010) 512 pp
I know, I’m a year behind here. The Little Stranger was longlisted and shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize. You may recall, I wasn’t much in the Booker mood in 2009 in large part because of the miserable experience that was Booker 2008. I was attracted to some of the books on the 2009 list, like this one. I’ve even acquired the whole shortlist. This was the last one I got, in fact, and if it hadn’t been promoted as a ghost story, I probably wouldn’t have even read it just yet, but for some reason I was in the mood for a good spooky story. Still, being a year behind on this particular book puts me out of the long conversations about what actually happens in The Little Stranger (whose otherwise nice cover had the misfortune of being that of a best seller and suffered stickers and quotes in all of its space).
This book is narrated by the polite voice of Doctor Faraday, a forty-year-old county physician who has raised to his position from the humble home of a shopkeeper and a maid. Faraday is a bachelor, too busy to find time for social visits. However, one day the family doctor of the Ayres family is unavailable, so Faraday answers the call and makes his way to Hundreds Hall, the Ayres estate. He had been there before:
I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fête: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or -five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six.
This recollection is more than a wistful memory. Faraday remembers the estate very well. He was enchanted by the house, so much so at the time that he vandalized it by breaking a wooden acorn from the woodwork. Now, it is almost thirty years later from that first visit, “and shortly after the end of another war — the changes appalled me.” Faraday hasn’t been back since. The Colonel is now dead, and so, sadly, is the little girl Susan — she died very young, not long after Faraday’s first visit to the house. Now the home is occupied by Mrs Ayres, her two children Caroline and Roderick (who were born mainly to fill the void left by Susan), and a young maid Betty. It is, in fact, Betty whom Faraday has been called to treat. Soon he realizes that she is faking her illness. She’s new in the house and, though the Ayreses have been kind, the house itself gives her the creeps. There’s something not right, she says.
This is the introduction to the ghost in the novel, though the ghost only comes out every so often, and mainly in the latter half of the book. The first half is devoted to developing the strange relationship between Faraday and the Ayreses. His mother, see, was the Ayres’ nursery maid. For the most part, Faraday is simply fascinated by the house, and he feels the Ayreses have let the house go.
But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards. Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on their walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted china . . .
Still, Faraday is a professional and he wants to help the Ayreses as best he can. Roderick, who since the Colonel died has been saddled with the task of managing the failing estate, still suffers from an injury he sustained during World War II (he is also suffering from psychological damage), and Faraday offers to treat it for free as he’d like to use some new treatments. This gives Faraday a reason to visit Hundreds Hall more frequently. As his visits increase, he and Caroline commence a friendship of sorts. She’s a charming and generally confident woman, and Faraday’s esteem for her grows each time they meet. Faraday also offers his assistance to Mrs Ayres and Betty — soon, in other words, Faraday is a constant visitor to Hundred Hall, the perfect witness for the family’s downfall.
Soon the strange occurrences become more frequent and more visible. They are an excellent way to look at the multiple ways things are falling apart for the Ayres. First, Roderick is afflicted with the stress of war and of running an estate which loses money each day. He’s psychologically weak, and the ghost first insinuates its way into Roderick’s nights and then his days. Strange things keep happening in other parts of the house: spots appear on the ceilings, childish scribblings appear in hidden corners, the whistle attached to the nursery keeps sounding off. Of course, all of this can be explained by the fact that the house itself is falling apart. Parts of the roof are leaking, the childish scribblings appear to be underneath the paint, and the place is so drafty now it’s no surprise they hear more and more strange sounds.
Of course, there is also the possibility that Betty is the cause. She did just come to the house, and perhaps as the maid — the only maid — she feels some bitterness toward the family. Or maybe she’s just that kind of adolescent. Class continues to be a part of the picture, as the house falls apart around the Ayreses. They, along with many others in the gentry, have all but forfeited their position in society; perhaps it’s a combination of all sorts of pressures coming on their mind: ‘Is that so surprising, with things for that family so bleak? The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners.’
There are other explanations. Obviously, there really could be a malicious ghost; the primary candidate is little Susan who died so young and whose position was so quickly replaced by Caroline and Roderick. Mrs Ayres certainly still feels guilt and longing. And even Faraday, who every once in a while displays seemingly uncharacteristic vehemence (at least, it is uncharacteristic as he describes it), has several motives to shake up this family. As his relationship with Caroline blossoms, he stands to raise his position in this world even higher if he can gain even more access to Hundreds Hall, perhaps even own it.
The book is exciting. I read it in great gulps and finished it quickly despite its being over 500 pages. The ghost story was intriguing, but I found the portrayal of the social classes as they crumble and get restructured was just as exciting to read. Waters is a wonderful story teller, and her writing is full of life and great observations. I’m anxious to read more of her work, and I have her other two Booker shortlisted works on hand.
Now, for my final two-bits. When The Little Strangerwas published, several quarters compared it to Henry James’s classic literary ghost story The Turn of the Screw, which just so happens to be one of my favorite stories of all time. In that story, there is such a strong degree of ambiguity that one cannot know exactly what happened in the story, though all sorts of possibilities are opened up and kept alive. Likewise, The Little Stranger has several pathways of interpretation, each exciting in its own way. The multiple threads are certainly part of the book’s strong charm. Furthermore, as in The Turn of the Screw, the most terrifying possibilities of all have nothing to do with the supernatural. The malice is all too human. I don’t think The Little Stranger lends itself to quite as much psychological possibilities as The Turn of the Screw (I think, in fact, that The Turn of the Screw is in many ways a reflection of the reader’s own psychological disposition), and I even think one particular possibility is so strongly hinted at in the text as to close up the others entirely. But it is very satisfying — and creepy and scary, if not for the reasons one expects.