In a year of reading that has included some MR James, Turn of the Screw and a ghost story at the end of the year by Wilkie Collins it was with real interest to sit down with a ghost story written by a modern writer.
Having said that Sarah Waters chose to set her story in the past in as much as post-war in a world that was changing as the aristocracy faced up to life with debts, little chance of their pain easing and a Labour government looking to support and reward the common people that had fought and suffered so much in the war.
One of these common people is Doctor Faraday who remembers the setting for the story Hundreds Hall as a child visiting with his mother who used to work as a servant in the house. Back then the house was grand but as the young Faraday found out all too well after pocketing a chunk of decoration it was crumbling.
But the main action happens much later as the doctor is in his 40ths and the house has been left to crumble with the doctor making friends with the current tenants an elderly Mrs Ayres and her son Roderick and daughter Caroline. The doctor initially enters the house to help with a maid who complains of an eeriness in the house that she believes comes from a haunting.
A relationship with the family grows from that with the doctor treating a reluctant Roderick for war wounds and developing feelings for Caroline. The problems the family face are all too physically in evidence with the house crumbling, rooms shut up and the grounds being sold off to develop a housing estate and provide funds to prop up the hall.
Roderick bears most of the brunt of the responsibility and so it is assumed that when he starts complaining of things happening and the house having it in for him that he is starting to have a breakdown. Even after his room is burnt out the doctor looks for a rational explanation and packs Roddy off to a mental home.
That leaves him with Caroline and Mrs. Ayres both of whom share his scepticism. But then things continue to happen and the question of whether or not Hundreds hall is haunted is something that cannot be ignored.
For the doctor, who by this time has developed a romantic attachment to both Caroline and the Hall, the answer is always rational. But for those living in the Hall and coping with feelings of fear and guilt over the death of a daughter and sibling the danger feels all too real.
Waters stokes the fires of this Gothic story masterly and in my humble opinion this would have been a good choice for the Booker prize. Well written and plotted it is supported by characterisation that underlines the divisions that can occur in relationships when one person refuses to believe the other.
If you are looking for a book that has the ability to send a shiver down the spine but also provoke thoughts about the state of the world for down at heel aristos after the war then this is both chiller and historically bang on the mark.
One of my favourite reads of 2009.
I’m not going to give away the ending to Little Stranger other than to say that even those who argue about the length and the pace cannot surely fail to agree that Waters manages to bring off emotions brilliantly. She works through the problems of love and rebuttal like a skilled dancer kicking back and performing a tango.
What does Faraday really want and who did he really love are the questions that stick with you longer perhaps than the identity of the little stranger. As the new council houses go up and former servant girls wait with their boyfriends at bus stops this is also describing a ghost of a former age. The post war victims of the loss of power and authority for the landed classes are dealt with here in an objective way that doesn’t fall into thesympathy trap but neither condemns them.
A very good read but far too simplistic for me to back it as prize winner bearing in mind I’ve not read any of the other contenders. So with that in mind it’s on to Wolf Hall…
With Rod gone and the house almost back to normal the story takes a romantic turn. What Waters is brilliant at is describing the moment when the observations and comments of others finally force Faraday to realise he might be falling for Caroline.
But the scenes describing the dinner dance at the hospital feel as if they are happening in real time and the criticism that would be easy to make is that Waters spends too long here.
But the story perhaps takes a different turn with the love blossoming because now Faraday is much more involved. He has a personal stake (Caroline) in the house and his ability to pretend that the strange things happening are still signs of tiredness or somehow cries for help are going to be more difficult to maintain.
The history of the child that died emerges and by now as a reader I’m more than happy to be carried along with a full blown supernatural wave happy to ignore Faraday’s voice of reason and immerse myself in the idea the old house is haunted.
Suddenly things start to happen with Roderick tormented by something which after a few incidents spills over into a fire. Faraday makes the mistake of breaking confidence and as a result convinces everyone that Rod is deranged and delusional and has him committed.
The problem is that if Rod was asleep and the fire wasn’t an accident then of course it is not so easy to dismiss.
Reading the story as it unfolds keeps you on your toes because although it is a leisurely read you have to concentrate on what must be clues that are being dropped into at various points.
There is a pace to this book that some might think too slow. But what is important is to build up things to the stage where if things do happen in the house then you are more willing to accept the rational, Dr Faraday backed explanation.
As the dog, Gyp, is put down because of biting the little girl from the neighbouring house a depression settles over the bleak house. Roderick is struggling with the finances and becomes increasingly burdened by the estate management.
Faraday the doctor becomes closer to the family by offering to help Roderick with his leg, damaged in the war, but is still very much at arms length both physically and emotionally. Some secrets start to be shared about the money and the damage done since the war but Faraday doesn’t live there, comes and goes weeks apart and is yet to get under the skin of the place.
You know when you are reading a good book because you put to one side everything else you have been reading and want to stick with it until the end.
That is the way it feels with The Little Stranger which is written in such a well paced way that you are pulled in at a speed that lends itself to creating a feeling of a world that is slowly revolving into a spiral of despair.
As Dr Faraday returns to the mansion where his mother worked that featured in his youth as the big house in the country he finds a family running out of money crushed by the responsibility of running the house and by the past. They feel they have to live up to the pre-war world of wealth with all its trappings.
But Faraday finds the Ayres are no longer what they were with Roderick the son wounded from the war and a virtual recluse who runs the estate along with his sister Caroline who has become a hardy country type destined for spinsterhood. Their mother dwells in the past when times were better and is happy to invite the doctor into their home to help treat her son and provide some link to the outside world as well, through Faraday’s appreciation and memories, also back to her own past.