The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
a book review by Adira Rotstein
(Warning... there is much dissing in this review and high brow subject matter refered to with disparaging colloquial words!)
"The Little Stranger" almost reads like a highbrow version of cartoonist Edward Gorey's "Gashlycrumb Tinys" book, (the one in which all the children named for letters of the alphabet are bumped off in various hideous and ridiculous ways).
I'm not really sure what he author was trying to achieve with this story. Although she describes the house of the Hundreds several times in the book, the description of the outside of the house doesn't really make sense. The fact that the walls are not straight brick is supposed to give the house a "wavering, shimmering" outline. This is quite magical sounding, but makes no sense-- I've drawn plenty of buildings in my time, asymetrical and otherwise and the only things that cause a building to look like its wavering or shimmering the way the author describes it, is when extreme heat makes waves of hot air seem to come off pavement, or when the air is smokey. It's supposed to be this really deep poetic conceit that the Hundreds exists in some sort of other space perhaps or is ghostly and insubstantial in some way, but like certain other conventional literary descriptions, (like people having "gray eyes" and the classic Victorian chestnut "he had a mobile mouth." Really? I think most people who can talk have mobile mouths and how would you even know that a character's mouth was preternaturally stretchy a la Jim Carey, unless the character spoke before the observation was made? ) this has no analogue in real life have no analogues in real life.
The beginning of the book starts with "Last night I dreamnt of Hundreds Hall." This is a deliberate quotation from the famous opening line of Daphne Du Maurier's
"Rebecca:" "Last night I dreamed of Manderly." Obviously the author excpects a literate audience to recognize the paraphrase, but I'm not sure what she wanted to achieve with it. a) She thinks it's such a good opening that it's worth using it again, hoping readers won't notice it's stolen or b) Borrowing the resonance of the novel "Rebecca" in shorthand helps start the reader out with instant ideas of setting and expectations for the story or possibly C)She wants to indicate that the narrator is a literate man who is trying to be ironic or something. Still, Waters never bothers to credit Du Maurier for the quotation. Why the deliberate invocation of "Rebecca?" It's not like Waters tries to overturn the concepts of the other book. "The Little Stranger" is not a satire or a parody after all. I would say "The Little Stranger" is probably better written, but with a poorer plot. What's with the "borrowed finery" then?
It really is a shame because once you get past the first sentence this book starts off with a really interesting set-up. There is great narrative promise in the beginning which is then perverted in a most cruel and unsatisfying manner in the end. Basically, the author uses the beginning to build up the tension, ask questions, hint at the answers and then... spends hundreds of pages hinting at further answers which decrease in their plausibility until a tedious ending. Perverts is perhaps a weird word here, because there is no physical intamacy or sex between any of the characters at all, even whe it seems narratively logical and expected for character to become physically affectionate in at least a small degree. I wonder why the author seems so uncomfortable writing about this. All the characters, though supposedly in love at various times in the novel, remain oddly sexless in a vaguely creepy way.
Waters starts off with a beautiful English Manor house which is beginning to fall apart due to neglect and lack of funds. The brave, but small family of three aristos inside, the widowed lady, the war-wounded son, and practical daughter valiantly trying to stave off financial ruin, are quite sweet and humorous. I loved the little touches like the lady of the house trying to reuse a previously franked stamp. So far it seems we are on promising enough territory. The narrator, Dr. Farraday was born to a lower class family in the nearby village who lived in awe of the Ayeres as a child. He remembers being invited for a school treat to the Hundreds Mansion to win a medal for academic achievement and fals in love with the beautiful house and the lifestyle of the happy, wealthy Ayeres family living there, so much so that he even steals a plaster accorn from the wall of the house. It also turns out that his mother once worked at the house as a nursery maid.
Switching to the present, we now see the narrator, Dr. Farrady having trouble fitting into the class concsious village. He's a doctor, but as the son of a working class family, doesn't have the proper connections and can't get the well paying clientel and respcet that the other less- talented, well born village practioners have. He is very resentful, which is his attitude to plenty he encounters in the story. Okay, I suppose I can say here that as a North American it is hard for me to work up a passion the way English people do about the class heirarchy and divide people into supposedly hereditary economic groups the way we in Canada divide each other based on where we immigrated from and of what generation, but I do have some comprehension of the British situation.
Eventually Faraday is called to the Ayeres house to see to the maid who has fallen ill. She claims to have seen a ghost and is desperate to leave. Farraday is amazed at how much the once great house has declined. The doctor develops a freindship with the Ayers family off this initial meeting, especially with Caroline Ayeres, the daughter of the family who is practical and down to Earth. He tries to win her over by volunteering to help her brother who is suffering from lingering wounds from the war and a "nervous complaint." Like Dr. Farrady I came to care about the family and especially the son Rod, who seems so stressed out of his mind with the care and keeping of the decrepit house and its land. His efforts and those of the other members of the Ayeres family to improve their circumstances are countinually stymied by what seem like supernatural occurances-- the scene is set for the Doctor's arrival to help disprove the ghost or help dispel it. Another anticipated scenario is for the Doctor to somehow cure the house and the people inside it of ill and in doing so let go of the chip on his shoulder and find a place for himself in the village's society.
Hints are set up that perhaps he will discover some hidden part of his past related to the secret of his dead mother, as to why she never talked much about her former life in the Ayeres household. Maybe there is some connection there with the mysterious death of Little Suky, the first Ayeres daughter, who appears to be haunting the house and why this ill fate has be fallen the family, etc. etc.
The suspense of the future revelation is palpable. The only recourse is to read on. Unfortunately, the story never resolves itself and worse, shoots any narrative pleasure it may offer in the foot by cruelly killing off or consigning to mad psychiatric hell all the characters the beginning of the story got us to care about. This is done in various macabre and supernatural ways, (hence the Gashlycrumb Tinys reference) as if the author enjoys cruelly dispatches her characters. What's worse is that all the hints for future plot strands given out in the first third of the book go absolutley no where. Even more distressing is that Waters never manages a credible explanation for why this is all happening. So all the deaths and sufering do nothing to serve the story's purpose or even clear up the mystery.
I read on and on in growing frustration until the end-- a cheap shot of an ending that makes the narrator even more unikable if such a thing were posible and still fails to explain what the hell is going on with he stupid house! Grrrrr....
Also, I don't know if the Booker committeee reads much popular SF or fantasy but if you read "Phoenix and Ashes" by Mercedes Lackey there are numerous similarities to suggest that if Waters didn't pilfer her plot and characters from LAckey, there must be two people with almost identical stories. The setting in terms of location and rough time period is exactly the same as the one in "Phoenix and Ashes." What is particularly damning is that the character of Roderick the supernaturally haunted,wounded airman, seems very similar to Reginald, the supernaturally haunted and wounded airman from "Phoenix and Ashes" even down to his specifc wound!
Lackey does not possess the confidence and style Waters writes in, but the comparison between setting and characters is still uncomfortably close.
At least "Phoneix and Ashes" had a fairly satisfying ending in keeping with the rest of the book.
Then again, the whole plot of a stranger coming to a bedeviled house with a great tragedy hanging over it in need of investigation can be found in various "Gothic" novels, including those of Du Maurier.
The character of Faraday also reminds me of the doctor narrator in "Alias Grace" by Margaret Atwood who ostensibly comes to visit the murdress Grace in prison to psychoanalyze her, but comes out of it almost becoming party to another murder himself. Atwood ends the book by having her unreliable narrator pratoganoist in the last few pages get injured and suffer brain damage so he can be married off by his mother to an insufferable woman he was trying to avoid.
Margaret Atwood, in common with a number of British so-called "literary" novelists like AS Byatt, is emotionally cold and distant with her characters, especially the male ones and doesn't seem very compasiontate or charitable to them. They merely serve her themes
In a similar vein Waters bumps off the Ayeres family one by one, starting with the family dog! It seems like she enjoys doing it too, but as a reader I derive no pleasure from her sadism. The worst is when she sends poor Roderick off to a lunatic saylum, where the narrator tells us he spends the rest of his life burning, cutting, injuring and maiming himself when not being tormented by whatever the unidentified thing that was tormenting him throughout the sotry is. Whatever Roderick's snobbish attitude in parts of the book, he certainly doesn't deserve this worse-than-death fate in the ending. It is too horrible and cruel.
Many stupid theories as to why the Ayeres mother believes she is being haunted by Suky her dead daughter who persusades her to commit suicide and join her in death are put forward. Other theories abound as to why Roderick feels he must try to hold back some evil spirit lest it unleash its wrath upon the family and excactly. Then there's the part where Caroline sees someone on the stairs who pushes her to her death. We are supposed to believe that the agent of her death was Farraday who had some kind of weird dream, or trance state in which he entered the house and pushed her over the railing, but was never physically there... or maybe he was? He is obviously supposed to be "the little stranger" of the title. Though I don't really know why he bears the family such a grudge that he would want to destroy them so thoroughly. It doesn't really make sense.
Whatever exactly was supposed to have happened, no one ever really nails it. Maybe this is supposed to be cool and "arty." I, however, just believe it's a case of the author having planned her novel very poorly, being unable to come to a decision and finding herself rushed to publication, before she could figure out how to tie up all the story endings. are never explained at all!
There is something to be said for clarity. The problem with this book is something people frequently get dinged for in Improv class, where the constant refrain of the teacher is "Nail it on the head!" Basically, this means that if you are giving someone an imaginary gift in an improv scene, don't dance around the subject of what the gift is, because you're too stunned and worried you won't think of something "good." Trust, me, whatever you can think of is better than nothing. With nothing concrete in place, there's no way to move the scene forward. It does nothing to impress the audience either and this is the problem this book suffers from. People are too afraid to make a choice and take a risk by being bold and naming the object. As an improviser or as a novelist you can't indulge yourself in this sort of weakness. If you're too coy to lay your cards on the table, you have no right being in this business.
If a reader or audience member has already made the commitment to come to your show or buy your book and open themselves up emotionally to your influence, you owe them the experience advertised, not a slap in the face or an insult to their trust. And if you're not prepared to bring an honest or open heart to the table, if you hold back from fear of looking stupid or doing wrong, it doesn't work. In my experience, a reader or audience member can forgive anything except the act of holding back or being insincere.
My gut instinct is that likes so many other books that start off with a bang and run out of steam halfway through, this book was probably accepted off the first few chapters by the publisher, with no request for a concrete plan or outline for the following chapters or how the author wanted it completed.
The most lucidly couched supposition I could get out of the book for what is going on in the house is that the Doctor is the little stranger of the title and somehow his resentment of the upper classes represented by the Ayeres, mixed with admiration and love and overwhelming desire for the house, acts subconciously as a spirit force to destroy the people inside using their own secret weaknesses against them. Caroline says this at one point, I think, though doesn't give Farraday the responsibility for it.
I have to say I am not the greatest believer in ghosts and supernatural causes and to not share an interest in the faded glory of the world of upper class manor houses and great families that some British do or WWII home front memerobelia. I don't believe the priviledged British upper classes have been brought down or died off as people like to think. They all just moved to posh London flats and bought up stock in computers. Money has a way of sticking to people, just metamorphisizing into different, less taxable forms. It seems like, reading between the lines that in the end Caroline identifes the doctor as the evil spirit and perhaps he kills her on the stairs before she can reveal him further? Not that anyone would believe her. It all seems pretty far-fetched and hard to buy into. Maybe the doctor desired the house and Caroline because she was part of the house to his eyes, but it's never made clear why Farraday wants the house so badly, even after it's ruined or why he'd want to harm the people in it who he appears to genuinely care for, for the whole book.
The past of the family and of the house seems pretty average. Nobody was horribly wronged to such an extent that they need such cruel avenging. Where is this degre of malevolence coming from-- because I can't see wehre such extreme hatred to do so muchc ruelty to people originates.
At the end of the novel, I was just left with a hollow feeling. Is it supposed to be about the lower class rising and the upper class declining, symbolized by the rise of Betty and Farraday and the decline of the Ayeres? Betty and Farraday are very unappealling characters.
Ultimately, I found the style of the book in its wording and phrases to be beautiful and flawless. Stylistically, the author is very confident and writes like a dream. However, at its core, it is empty. The initial promise of the book is marred by the author's cruelty to her characters and by extension to her audience.
By the time the supposedly spooky end comes with Farraday looking around the empty house trying to spot a ghost or malevolent spirit, only to see his own face in the mirror, I was just thinking "Oh come on!" Ooooh, what a hat-trick!
I was ready to throw the wretched book against the wall in disgust.
Ultimately, when judging a book worthy of the Booker prize, I think a number of factors must come into play:
1) It might be a book that expresses something completely new. Though the style isn't there, it is a fresh voice speaking, with characters or scenario never seen before.
It might say something so different and revolutionary that the book world must stand up and take notice.
2) The work is the culmination or perfection of a large and worthy body of work by many people in a genre never recognized as high literature before by the establishment. (It's not the originality, but the full flowering of a particular style or genre).
3) An honour for an author, previously unrecognized, with a long and distinguished (though perhaps previously overlooked) body of work.
I don't really see any of these three factors operating here.
This book has nothing new or breath-taking to say. Class division. Wow. There's never been a British novel on that topic, has there? Writing about the class system, seems to come as naturally to British authors, as writing about racism comes to Americans, or writing about wilderness survival (cringe) seems to come to Canadian authors. TI's not revolutionary unless you have something new to say on the topic. This book does not.
As for the full flowering of the Gothic novel, well I think that happened over a hundred years ago. The whole cursed noble family/haunted house genre seemed to have its big moment in the sun (er, ominous shadows, I guess), ages ago. If you want to revisit the genre, try to say something new about it.
What stinks about this book is that I was totally ready to go on an interesting journey with these characters in this setting and now all I got to do was write this nasty review of the book! I'd much rather have read something great and have nice things to say, instead of being so annoyed at how inhumanely Waters treats her characters and readers.