Tuesday 3 January 2012

[Book Review] The Little Stranger

I picked up The Little Stranger by chance, since it was only £2 in HMV. The fact it's a ghost story naturally caught my eye, and the fact it's set in a crumbling old house in the 1940s was a bonus. Written by Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger was published in 2009, and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

The story is narrated by Dr Faraday, a Warwickshire doctor called to attend a sick maid at Hundreds Hall, the dilapidated country seat of the Ayres family. The family are almost destitute, ruined by the social changes wrought by the Second World War, and Dr Faraday soon finds himself becoming a family friend. We're given an inkling that all is not well early on, when the sick maid complains of how creepy she finds the house.

Dr Faraday reminds me a lot of Stevens, the uptight butler narrator of The Remains of the Day. He's caught in his own internal class struggle, fighting against his working class upbringing as he seeks to ingratiate himself with the failing aristocratic Ayres family. He also reveals a lot about himself through his careless asides, and most of the time it becomes blatantly obvious what is going on, without Faraday being at all aware of it. I lost count of the number of times I cringed on his behalf.

It's a strange book in that things don't really get going until page 141 or so, and it was more a vague sense of interest in the mundane activities of the family that kept me reading. By page 141, the famous pacing finally kicked in and I found it truly gripping reading. I'd speed through whole chapters at a time, squeezing in reading time wherever I found five minutes. Waters builds up the tension surrounding the haunting, all the while keeping Faraday as the voice of reason, making the reader decide for themselves whether the house is haunted or not.

I wouldn't necessarily label The Little Stranger as a ghost story per se, but I would label it as a supernatural thriller, or perhaps a psychological chiller. Waters captures 1940s speech patterns, and while some of her descriptive passages border on unnecessary, when she really hits her stride, they paint the picture of an old house caught between its glory days and decay, inhabited by shades of their former selves. Perhaps the house is haunted after all - if only by its owners.

The opening section aside, it's well-written and a truly enjoyable read.

Four blunt pencils out of five!


Jen said...

I read this for a book club last year and I enjoyed it, too. I think the open ending is what made me like it most. It was odd in a lot of ways, too. Not what I expected.

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