Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

I know, I’m a year behind here.  The Little Stranger(2009) 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.

12 thoughts on “Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

  1. Birdy says:

    Interesting and detailed review… I have this book with me in the TBR pile, will pick it up next perhaps…

  2. Teresa says:

    I’m glad to see that you liked this. It was one of my three favorites from the Booker list last year (along with Summertime and Brooklyn). It perfectly blended thrills and excitement with thoughtful observations about class.

    It’s been interesting to see people’s different ideas about what was going on. I agree with you that one possibility is so strongly hinted at that the others are closed off by the end of the book (although there are elements of that possibility that aren’t entirely clear). But even though I thought the source of the manifestations was obvious, I’ve been surprised at how many readers haven’t come to the same conclusion I did, so perhaps there’s more ambiguity there than what I saw.

  3. The great thing about you being a year late on the book is that you bring it back to mind for those of us who read it a year ago.

    I think your final comment is very perceptive and an observation that I did not make when I read the novel last year. I certainly think the book is much better if a reader can hold the ambiguity of a number of possible explanations (rather than searching for the “real” one). As both you and Teresa observe, Waters may have made one seem quite a bit more possible than others, so a reader has to work a little bit to keep the others open.

    More importantly however, I second your assessment that it is the broader context of social change and class disruption that has come to predominate in my memory of the book. I do think that Waters is particularly good at characterization as well as plot (in all her books) and it is a tribute to her that her characters become even more complete with contemplation and memory.

  4. Trevor says:

    I think you’ll enjoy it, Birdy. Let us know if that is the case or not!

    Teresa, I agree that there is still the potential of ambiguity, like Kevin says. And I’m all the more happy because of that.

    BEWARE: SPOILERS —

    I’m particularly happy to keep thinking the Ayreses went mad of their own accord, that it was something escaping from the dark corners of their minds as they watched their world collapsing around them, nicely emphasized by the gradual collapsing of Hundreds Hall.

    I also like the idea of a ghost that is more a figment of Mrs Ayres’s imagination, emphasizing her helplessness and guilt. Again, I think that says a lot about the reality for many in that time period.

    And, my favorite, the one Waters suggests strongly in the last line, is that Faraday himself is causing, perhaps unconsciously, the disasters that unfold. Or, even if he isn’t causing all of them, he is using them to his advantage. His treatment of Caroline at the latter half of the novel, when he’s in love with her but she doesn’t want it, is despicable, even if we accept his humble account of what happened. I felt pity for him, but I hated him just the same. I wonder, though, did he ever love her? Did he consciously use her to get to Hundreds Hall? Or did his love for her become jumbled by his obsession for the estate? It doesn’t seem he knows, in the end, what he did, so I’m assuming his love for Caroline was a bad case of transference that eventually drives him mad and allows him to carry out a murder without even knowing it.

    And again, I love that that interpretation still lends itself as a great way to look at the class structure at the time from the perspective of someone rising but still blocked.

  5. Kirsty says:

    Hello. Long time reader, first time commenter here.

    I read this book last year, and I very much enjoyed it, but my admiration for it has grown a lot looking back on it.

    [Spoilers ahead]

    I favour the explanation that Waters seems to hint rather heavily at, i.e. that Faraday is somehow the source of the activity. I recently read a piece in the Guardian where she thought that one particular explanation came across more strongly than others but that some readers had disagreed. While it might be more ambiguous than even Waters herself perhaps intended, I think that ambiguity is an integral part of the novel. It allows us as readers to read more freely between the lines.

    And, like you, I think that the way that she portrayed the breakdown of the class structure was one of the strongest aspects of the book. For me, that’s the main thing that lifted it above the average.

  6. What’s interesting in this one is having read several reviews and comments a lot of people seem to feel the ending is wholly unambiguous, but they don’t always agree on the way in which it’s unambiguous.

    Your review reminded me of Brideshead. A stranger to a country house comes in a time of innocence and falls in love with it, then returns later to find it no longer as it was. The family, and the class they are part of, are declining and there’s ambiguity as to how good an influence on them all the stranger is.

    Were there any parallels? It seems a lot to be just coincidence, but perhaps the subject matter partly drives such a treatment.

  7. Trevor says:

    It is interesting that people don’t agree on the way in which the ending is unambiguous. To me, the last line identifies one possibility. Even if you don’t accept that possibility, I’m not sure, given how strong the last line is, how one can think another possibility is certain. I’d like to read some of those comments. For a year I avoided them so I’d read the book without spoilers, and now I’m not sure where to turn to find them again. Oh well.

    As for Brideshead, you are right. I thought of that book frequently, not because The Little Stranger touched on all of the same themes, but because the setting and some of the things you mention are so similar. If I were comparing the two, though, I’d say that Brideshead handles things much better. What I liked about The Little Stranger is how Waters uses the ghost story to get at them from a different angle.

    I should admit, though — and this is slightly silly — I imagined Faraday as Jeremy Irons circa 1980. So I cannot dispute that I was thinking of Brideshead.

  8. Colette Jones says:

    I’d suggest comments on the Asylum blog and the Booker forum thread for thoughts on the ambiguity.

    This is one of those books that I have much more appreciation for later than when I read it. I was bored by the first two thirds when I read it, but when I now read the reviews, I have fond memories of it and am glad I read it. (That doesn’t happen very often).

  9. Liz says:

    I bought this book at a used book sale because it had been on the Booker list, but it’s been collecting dust on my shelf due to the fact that I really don’t like ghost stories. However, your review has made me think about it again and just may spur me to get my duster out…I like the idea of ambiguity…I still have one more selection to make for the book groups that I run, and I think the best discussions result from ambiguity in a novel. I think I’ll read this and see if my groups will enjoy it. Thanks for the review.

  10. tolmsted says:

    I downloaded this novel on audibles.com to listen to during my commute, and for some reason was never able to enjoy it. The reading was well done, but not even halfway through I gave up on it. Maybe I’ll give it another go, this time in book form. Your review reminds me of one of my favorite ghost stories: Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

  11. It’s a while since I’ve read it but I too loved its evocation of the collapse of the English upper class. I think the ending was ambiguous and I felt that she points to multiple causes. I liked Seeley’s statement about forces being let loose by the subliminal mind. I think several minds here let their forces loose? (I have reviewed it if you are interested).

  12. Trevor says:

    I remember reading in John Self’s comment stream that this must be a good book: otherwise, how could so many good readers disagree on whether the ending is ambiguous, clear, or a bit of both?

    I think Seeley’s statement about the mind is key to the book, and I think parts of each character come out in the disasters they are victim too. Still, that last line . . . Is it only referring to Caroline’s death? Or is it not even referring to that?

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